Although it once seemed like science fiction, United States Navy has now actually outfitted the command vessel of its Fifth Fleet with an operational high-energy combat laser. The USS Ponce is currently deployed in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz, making the use of this weapon a real and viable option if tensions in the region ever boil over.
As quoted by Bloomberg, Frank Kendall, the top weapons buyer for the Pentagon, said that this test of the weapon in a real-world situation is a “worthwhile experiment” and “it’ll help us feel out the operational limitation”.
Admiral John Greenert, Chief of Naval Operations, seemed to concur with the choice of the presence of the laser weapon in an operationally relevant region when he said, “What am I looking for? How does it operate in that environment – heat, humidity, dust, and at sea. It’s got to roll, move around, how much power does it take to sustain it? I have to take it out and get it wet, and the Arabian Gulf’s a pretty tough environment.”
The 30 kW solid-state laser weapon system, known as the LaWS, was developed over seven years at a cost of $40 million. It operates by focusing beams from six commercial welding lasers into a single coherent stronger beam that is intended to perform as a defensive weapon. It can be used to blind enemies with non-lethal force or, given enough power and enough time, can actually set fire to smaller boats and drones. The weapon has undergone numerous at-sea tests against stationary targets.
One major advantage is the LaWS’ extreme cost-effectiveness. It only costs about one dollar per shot to operate. On the other hand, the weapon requires an abundant power supply, which is available on the USS Ponce. For the moment, however, that precludes it from being installed on ships with less powerful generators.
Other limitations include performance vulnerabilities due to weather conditions, smoke, and water vapor or dust in the air, all of which can adversely affect the efficiency of the laser beam. The actual range of the weapon is still classified by the Navy.
The LaWS is equipped on the Ponce for a one-year test evaluation, representing the Navy’s goal of placing similar high-energy lasers throughout the Fleet as an alternative to more traditional weaponry. The most interesting potential benefits to the Navy are the weapon’s low cost-per-use and its efficacy as a self-defense measure against the most common threats faced by naval vessels.