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The Navy's Mounting an Anti-Drone Laser Off the Iranian Coast

The Navy's Mounting an Anti-Drone Laser Off the Iranian Coast

For decades, lasers have been the weapons of the future, perpetually "on the way" but relegated to sci-fi battle scenes and research labs. Insiders joke that laser weapons are “only five years out—and always will be.” But now the future is here: The US Navy will deploy a fully operational solid-state laser weapon system for the first time this summer, on a ship in the Persian Gulf.
The laser weapon will eventually be integrated with the naval fleet, but for now its presence in the gulf, aboard the USS Ponce, is more of an "at-sea demonstration," potentially sending a message to adversaries in the Middle East that the US military has this technology at the ready. 
The Navy first announced its plan to deploy the Laser Weapon System (LaWS) in April, and an Associated Press report yesterday on the plan's progress brought the high-tech weapon back in the spotlight. 
Naturally, the Navy also created a few videos showing off the laser’s capabilities—shooting at drones in the air like a video game. 

However, the system's real-world use is more strategic. Pentagon officials have stopped short of specifically singling out any specific countries when discussing the naval laser. But the weapon is designed to target surveillance drones and high-speed swarming boat attacks, and Iran is reportedly building surveillance drones and haslaunched high-speed swarming boat attacks against the US in the past. Not to mention the Ponce will be stationed off the Iranian coast. Probably not happenstance.
The New York Times pointed out the connection last spring, "The announcement, made by Adm. Jonathan W. Greenert, chief of naval operations, seemed meant as a warning to Iran not to step up activity in the gulf," the paper reported. When navy engineer Thomas Eccles explained the defensive strategy to Wired, he said the prototype should give pause to “any country that operates the kinds of threats this system is designed to deal with."
Threats like swarm attacks—when a group of small boats carrying explosives zoom toward a large ship and overwhelm the vessel—are hard to anticipate and defend against with traditional weapons built to target other big ships. In field tests, the LaWS successfully tracked and shot down small speed boats. Sailors can control the laser's output, beaming non-lethal rays can “blind” incoming vessels by frying sensors. The heat can also burn aerial surveillance cameras. Or, someday, shoot drones straight out of the sky.
It paints an incredibly sci-fi picture of the future of warfare: Lasers mounted on trucks, ships, and even laser-wielding fighter jets will attack flying robots that are also equipped with laser weapons to shoot down missiles or who knows what else. The US military is actively testing all of these things, and we’re not the only ones.
And in case that’s not Star Wars enough for you, the Pentagon has also been flirting for some time now with an electro magnetic rail gun that can fire projectiles at six times the speed of sound. Officials told the AP they plan to test the rail gun at sea within two years.

The appeal of directed energy weapons like these goes beyond flexing our high-tech muscles for the rest of the world. They're super-efficient and inexpensive compared to missiles and bombs: A shot of directed energy costs about one dollar, compared to hundreds of thousands of dollars to fire a missile. Also unlike old-school weapons, the LaWS can be operated by a single sailor and fired continuously without running out, as long as there’s a charge.
Officials have compared directed energy in the past to how gunpowder revolutionized modern warfare in the era of knives and swords.
“It’s fair to say that there are other countries working on this technology. That’s safe to say," Capt. Mike Ziv of the Naval Sea Systems Command told the AP. “It fundamentally changes the way we fight."  @meghnaneal
TOPICS: militarydronesdefenselaserspower


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