After successful testing last year, the Navy is preparing to deploy its first directed energy weapon to the fleet. When it puts to sea this summer, the afloat forward staging base ship USS Ponce will be equipped with the Navy’s Laser Weapon System (LaWS).
LaWS is a system based on a design developed by the Navy Research Lab and engineers at the Naval Sea Systems Command and Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren. Its purpose is not to vaporize enemy ships but to provide a low-cost way for the Navy to defend against drones, small boats, light aircraft, and missiles at ranges of about a mile.
While the Navy will still depend on missiles and guns to defend against bigger targets, the LaWS system is designed to cost about a dollar a shot without the fuss and muss of the depleted uranium bullets spewed by the Navy’s Phalanx Close-In Weapons System (CIWS). It can be used for a “hard” kill on smaller targets (directing enough energy at the target to set it on fire or explode fuel aboard it) or for a “soft” kill by blinding a drone or missile’s imaging sensors.
“The effects are scalable,” Navy Captain Mike Ziv, the Naval Sea Systems Command’s program manager for directed energy and electric weapons, told the Department of Defense’s Armed With Science blog. “In some cases [the effects are] reversible, and in some cases it can be used for destruction.”
In a test last May, an initial prototype of the system used the CIWS’ radar system to target, blind, and then destroy a drone in flight from the deck of a ship. The video below is a bit misleading—it didn’t shoot down one of the multi-million dollar carrier-based drones the Navy is testing.