Back in 2007, the US Navy started looking at high-energy lasers for use as an active weapon. The most promising of these, the Laser Weapons System (LaWS) has already downed target aircraft and is on the way to the fleet.
(The LaWS prototype aboard the USS Dewey in 2012)
The LaWS uses series of six commercially available 5.4-kW fiber lasers focused through a frequency doubling crystal. This active laser system can fire a very tight 32kW beam at line of sight ranges than can travel in excess of 10-miles on a clear day. The typical commercially availible red laser pointer is about 1 milliwatts and is advertised to be able to damage your retinas if you stare into it. This laser is 32-kW, which means that it is 32,000,000-times more powerful than the thing you chase your cat around the house with.
It costs some $32-million to develop, which may seem like a lot but when compared to such high-tech weapons as the multi-billion dollar F-35, it's a comparative bargain.
How effective is it?
In a recent test aboard the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Dewey last summer the LaWS prototype downed a BQM-147A target UAV drone. This weapon, when fielded will be able to shoot down slow moving aircraft, such as UAVs and helicopters, as well as be able to engage small boats and possibly even targets ashore. Its beam does not have to destroy the target if not required. It can simply damage it, blind its sensors, or in the place of a small boat, kill its engine and leave it dead in the water.
( On the Dewey's helicopter deck. A lot of that space is being taken up by generators (rented from Cat, apparently!) and associated power distribution equipment. If the system were integrated into the ship, it would not take up so much space, especially above deck. )
If just a small portion of the laser energy is used, rather than a full power blast, an intense and visible beam can be projected to significant ranges to provide a clear and unmistakable warning that a potential target is about to be zapped unless an immediate change in their behavior is observed. This feature could also be used as a laser dazzler, a sort of less-lethal weapon, to disorient and warn away the crew of an aircraft or ship. In short the LaWS could be used to 'flash' an approaching unidentified craft at long distances, in the hope that a little bit of eye irritation could result in saving lives on both sides. While the 1995 United Nations Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons bans weapons designed to cause permanent blindness, the use of the LaWS in this sense could be examined if it could be turned down enough to not cause permanent damage.
A test video of the LaWS in action, shooting down a remotely piloted UAV drone. Pretty dramatic footage. From the Navy's website: "120804-N-ZZ999-001 SAN DIEGO, Calif. (Jul. 30, 2012) The Laser Weapon System (LaWS) temporarily installed aboard the guided-missile destroyer USS Dewey (DDG 105) (shown here conducting an operational test) in San Diego, Calif., is a technology demonstrator built by the Naval Sea Systems Command from commercial fiber solid state lasers, utilizing combination methods developed at the Naval Research Laboratory. LaWS can be directed onto targets from the radar track obtained from a MK 15 Phalanx Close-In Weapon system or other targeting source. The Office of Naval Research's Solid State Laser (SSL) portfolio includes LaWS development and upgrades providing a quick reaction capability for the fleet with an affordable SSL weapon prototype. This capability provides Navy ships a method for Sailors to easily defeat small boat threats and aerial targets without using bullets. (U.S. Navy video by Office of Naval Research/ Released)"
(Smoke one UAV)
Costs $1 per shot
According to the Navy, the LaWS can fire a full-power burst that costs less than $1 per session. By comparison a SM-2MR surface to air missile, the Navy's standard plane and missile killer for the past thirty years, costs about $400,000 a pop. Even smaller close in point defense type missiles such as the RIM-116 Rolling Airframe Missile (RAM) can run over $700K apiece. Further, whereas the number of missiles, shells, and bullets carried by a ship is always finite, as long as the ship's engineering department can produce power, the LaWS can be fired.
This beast is the old 1989-era Sea Lite Beam Director, the Navy's first active high-energy laser. Well, the USN has now figured out how to shrink this down to package that is more pallet-sized than supersized.
How will it look when it is adopted?
LaWS will deploy on the Persian Gulf next year on the USS Ponce. The Ponce is a nearly 50-year old former amphibious warfare ship that had been converted to an Afloat Forward Staging Base in the Persian Gulf. An experimental Ord-Alt'ed CIWS on the Ponce is expected to carry the system sometime after October 2013.
The current US Navy's Phalanx MK15 Close In Weapons System (CIWS) fires a
high-speed computer controlled radar guided 20mm Gatling gun at over
4500-rounds per minute. It's expected that the Navy will add the LaWS
laser to this already cutting-edge gun after 2016.
(The red 'can' on the side of the CIWS is the LaWS laser...coming to the fleet at least in experimental form as early as this year)
The Navy is intending to add this system to the more than 250 CIWS Phalanx mounts found through the fleet. These devices are the familiar R2D2-looking systems that marry a small radar, fire-control system, and 20mm Vulcan cannon to track targets out to 10 miles away and destroy them once they are within 2.2-miles with accurate gunfire. The addition of the LaWS laser to this will allow the CIWS to engage threats first with the laser then with the 20mm Vulcan if needed. This combined laser/gun mount, after testing and acceptance will be known as the CIWS Mk 15 Mod 41 with production and fielding in the fleet by 2017.
Times, it seems, they are a changing.
North Korea says what?