The Navy next year will deploy a ship-mounted laser that can shoot down drones and planes, and disable small vessels, officials said Monday at the service's annual Air-Sea-Space Expo, touting the futuristic weapon as a cost-saving measure.
"Our directed-energy initiatives, and specifically the solid-state laser, are among our highest priority science and technology programs," said Rear Adm. Matthew Klunder, chief of naval research, according to the Navy News Service.
Adm. Klunder said a laser shot costs less than a dollar, compared to the hundreds of thousands of dollars that are expended when a single missile is fired — making a more cost-effective defense against low-tech or so-called "asymmetric" attacks, such as from drones or small boats sailed by suicide bombers.
"This capability provides a tremendously affordable answer to the costly problem of defending against asymmetric threats, and that kind of innovative approach is crucial in a fiscally constrained environment," the admiral said.
The Laser Weapons System will be deployed in summer 2014 aboard the USS Ponce, a converted amphibious transport and docking ship, in the Persian Gulf. The Navy's 5th Fleet, based in Bahrain, patrols the Gulf and the Horn of Africa.
U.S. war games have shown how small, fast Iranian attack boats, like those operated by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps' navy, would be effective against larger, slower and more expensive U.S. naval vessels.
The new weapon is also flexible, capable of shooting at a range of intensities — from a beam capable of burning through the hull of a ship or aircraft, to a burst that temporarily blinds adversary's sensors, rendering them briefly useless but otherwise undamaged.
Such flexibility is considered crucial in asymmetric scenarios, where an enemy might seek to force the United States to fire the first shot.
"The future is here," Peter A. Morrison, who runs the Office of Naval Research's Solid-State Laser Technology Program, told the Naval News Service. "The solid-state laser is a big step forward to revolutionizing modern warfare with directed energy, just as gunpowder did in the era of knives and swords."
The New York Times reported Tuesday that other analysts also consider the new weapon a possible "game changer" for the Navy.
"Equipping Navy surface ships with lasers could lead to changes in naval tactics, ship design and procurement plans for ship-based weapons, bringing about a technological shift for the Navy — a 'game changer' — comparable to the advent of shipboard missiles in the 1950s," said an assessment by the Congressional Research Service.
However, there are several limitations to the weapon, according to the research service. Lasers are ineffective in poor weather or amid smoke, dust and sand — because the beam can be deflected or scattered.
The deployment is two years ahead of schedule, Navy News Service said.
The deployment on the Ponce "is part of a wider portfolio of near-term Navy directed energy programs that promise rapid fielding, demonstration and prototyping efforts for shipboard, airborne and ground systems," according to the news service.
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