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​The US Navy Got Itself a Fancy New Laser

The laser, which sadly lacks any colored light or <em>pew-pew</em> sound effects, just silently swivels on its turret until it locks onto the engine of an enemy vehicle. Then, suddenly, the engine combusts.

A United States Air Force laser experiment. Photo courtesy of ​WikiCommons

This Wednesday, the US Navy invited the world to witness the firepower of its fully armed and operational Laser Weapons System, or LaWS, for short. The first such system to be installed on an active ship, the USS Ponce in the Persian Gulf, video of firing tests released by the military show the laser taking down two unmanned ships and a drone. Rather eerily the laser, which lacks any colored light or pew-pew sound effects, swivels on its turret to lock precisely onto the engine of each craft. Then, suddenly, the engines just suddenly combust, grounding the otherwise intact vehicle and hypothetical crew.

Chief of Naval Research Rear Admiral Matthew L. Klunder, in somewhat ominous language, hailed the weapons test as a major technological breakthrough, so outclassing enemy capabilities as "to ensure our sailors and marines are never in a fair fight."

Officials first announced that they would test the LaWS system on the Ponce this spring, and tests have been underway since September. The system is the result of $40 million and more than four years of research, design, and manufacture across naval research and private sector labs. Operated using what is essentially a video game controller and hooked into the diesel power and navigation systems of the ship, the 30-kilowatt laser (at least six times as strong as an industrial, metal-cutting laser) is one of the most energy efficient ever tested. It can be adjusted to non-lethal settings, allowing it to knock out opponents' optical sensors or temporarily blind (dazzle) a combatant. Those involved in the device's research believe they can triple-to-quintuple the power of the laser, though, and test these new versions within the next two-to-three years, hopefully seeing active and widespread combat deployment by the early 2020s.

Yet despite what all the hype and mind boggling footage may imply, this is far from the first weapons system the American military has ever tested, or the first footage of such tests ever released. Earlier this year, defense contractor Lockheed Martin demonstrated its own 30-kilowatt laser, marketing it for possible inclusion on combat planes and tanks, Boeing demonstrated its ability to target and fire through inclement weather, and China announced its own laser systems tests. Even industrial laser cutters released last year are starting to look eerily similar to TV laser rifles.

What makes the LaWS test so revolutionary (one member of the Navy's Solid State Laser Technology Maturation program sees it as equal to the shift from swords to gunpowder) is that the Ponce will keep the system mounted and has been authorized to use it in self-defense. The first system installed for use on an active military craft, this moves laser technology from something that's historically been five years away for decades to a battlefield reality.

Laser weapons like the one on the Ponce are basically lethalized light. A focused beam of energy, with enough juice running through them they are capable of cutting through and destroying the hull of a ship or engine of a plane. Yet to date most lasers in use by armies around the world have been used for their precision targeting and optical sensor disabling rather than their destructive capabilities. Even a system like the LaWS lacks a certain explosive punch, as it can only put precise holes in objects within a few miles, which is nothing close to what you'd need to, say, disable an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, as we once imagined lasers might do. If not for the ability to accurately and reliably hit small targets, like engine blocks or fuel sources, something like LaWS would be the military industrial equivalent of keying a car.

It'd be nice to be able to say the military has embraced this pinpointing technology because it could theoretically reduce civilian and combatant casualties, neutralize inbound projectile threats to our citizens and soldiers, and turn war into a game of equipment stoppage rather than messy, indiscriminate carnage. And the focus of firing tests on incoming mortars and missiles and small, swift suicide or swarming boat attacks (think USS Cole bombing to understand this threat), plus official statements on the value of lasers as an ordinance-free weapon creating less risk than storing and handling fuel and gunpowder, indicate some concern with soldier safety. But much more language in Wednesday's announcements concerned the cost efficiency of lasers and no mention was made of decreased enemy or non-combatant casualties.

"At less than a dollar per shot," said Klunder, "there's no question about the value LaWS provides," compared to thousand-plus dollar missiles.

Folks in the 1970s and 1980s developed laser weapons with more explosive ideas, as when President Ronald Reagan famously envisioned a belt of laser-firing anti-nuke satellites dubbed the Strategic Defense Initiative but often derogatorily known as Star Wars. So many attempts were made to develop and deploy lasers in the 80s especially that in 1995 the UN had to step in to issue some (now quaint) protocols about laser weapons. Yet by the early 2000s the technology had proven so costly, risky, and impractical to the grandiose expectations that preceded it that, aside from a few doodles and early stage research projects, it seemed near shelving.

Only when military researchers embraced the laser as a cheap solution to short-range, precision defensive capabilities rather than a Michael Bay vision of the future did systems tests start to come hard and heavy around the turn of the last decade, especially from 2009 to 2012. These laser weapons, mostly stationary or hosted on proving ranges and bases, have experimented with different laser technologies, power sources, beam strengths and applications, and mounting systems for use in air or on land and sea alike. But up until now none had ever been tested on a bobbing, bustling, active vehicle like the Ponce, nor put into active service.

"We ran this particular weapon ... through some extremely tough paces," said Klunder. "And it locked on and destroyed the targets we designated with near-instantaneous lethality."

This above-expectation performance in real-world conditions, including adverse heat, humidity, and winds, have pushed ahead plans to keep the laser cannon on the Ponce for at least a year. While there, the ship's captain, under guidance of new laser-themed rules of engagement negotiated over the past year with the Pentagon, will be empowered to use the laser as a defensive capability if needed.

Such a deployment is likely to light a fire under the asses of other projects, and move us towards a mass-issuing of laser systems within the next decade, breaking a long cycle of the technology sitting just over a never-reached horizon. For now, the Navy will focus on refining and strengthening LaWS, among other projects. But off of the seas other departments of the military will have to tackle the issue of power and portability if they want to mount effective devices on smaller vehicles like Humvees and see mass deployment in-step with the Navy calendar. For now, we're at the very least looking at a space-age ocean scape within the near future. 

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