A laser gun that looks like a telescope will go to sea later this year aboard a Navy warship.
Over a 12-month trial deployment in potentially hostile waters, sailors will attempt to prove whether laser beams can serve as legitimate weapons against approaching small aircraft or high-speed boats.
For Navy officials and military contractors, much is at stake in the success of the demonstration. The performance of the fiber solid-state laser — to be installed aboard the USNS Ponce amphibious transport ship — will be seen as a litmus test for the wider use of energy-based weapons.
The Navy has spent about $40 million over the past six years on research, development and testing of laser weapons, although it has been pursuing the technology in various forms for much longer, with modest results. After decades of experimentation, so-called directed-energy weapons have yet to graduate from science projects to big-ticket procurements.
Officials and outside experts believe the Navy now has a real motivation to adopt speed-of-light weapons even though it has an ample arsenal of proven kinetic missiles and warheads. The reason is simple economics. A high-power solid-state laser, if installed on a ship that can generate hundreds of kilowatts of electricity, can provide firepower for as little as a dollar per shot, according to some estimates. By comparison, conventional naval gun rounds and missiles cost tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars a piece.
The installation of the laser on the Ponce will begin this summer, said Chris Johnson, spokesman for the Naval Sea Systems Command. No firm dates have yet been set. “We are using this deployment as an opportunity to test a weaponized laser in an operationally relevant environment, similar to where future systems would likely be used,” he said. If the Navy decides to move forward with the project, the first operational weapons could enter the fleet sometime between 2017 and 2021.
Since being designated as the test bed for a laser weapon, the USNS Ponce has moved into the spotlight. The ship was taken off commission in 2011 but was resurrected in 2012 as an “afloat forward staging base” and transferred to the Military Sealift Command. Navy officials saw it as a fitting platform to experiment with lasers at sea.
The exact power level of the laser gun that will go on the Ponce is classified. Outside experts speculate that it is probably somewhere between 15 and 50 kilowatts.