U.S. Navy's Ship-Mounted Laser Weapon. It Works. With Video.

By Patrick Morgan | April 11, 2011 3:18 pm

What’s the News: In a demonstration near California’s San Nicholas Island last Wednesday, scientists with the U.S. Navy tested a laser weapon aboard the USS Paul Foster by shooting a 15-kilowatt beam at an inflatable boat from a mile away, causing the outboard engines to burst into flames. It was the world’s first successful water-test of a high-energy laser. “I spent my life at sea,” Rear Adm. Nevin Carr told Wired, “and I never thought we’d see this kind of progress this quickly, where we’re approaching a decision of when we can put laser weapons on ships.”

What’s the Context:

  • In solid-state lasers, like the one in the test, the special component used to amplify light to produce a powerful and coherent beam is, as the name implies, a solid.
  • Even though these lasers have been tested on land before, this maritime test is a big deal because it means that moist sea air, which can dampen the strength of lasers, doesn’t render the laser ineffective—at least, not always.
  • This latest successful test comes less than three years after the U.S. Navy awarded global security company Northrop Grumman a $98 million contract to develop a sea-worthy laser weapon.
  • The military first started testing laser weapons in the 1970s, when most were chemical-based lasers that “tended to produce dangerous waste gasses.” Laser weapons are meant to supplement traditional ammunition (not replace it), providing the Navy with more options in maritime warfare.
  • Solid-state lasers have been used to shoot down drones in the past and laser-bearing jumbo jets have shot down missiles.

Not So Fast: As the video makes clear, this laser is not an Iron Man-type of blow-up-a-battleship affair—just a big laser that makes one spot really hot. The Navy still needs to develop maneuvers, tactics, and procedures for laser-based warfare before you’ll see the average destroyer equipped with laser weapons.

The Future Holds: Expect laser-lugging Navy ships in the next decade. And when free electron lasers come on board, expect lasers that pack even more punch, upwards of 100 kilowatts of power.

  • Georg

    “”Solid-state lasers, like the one in the test, generate high-energy beams by running electrons through glass or crystal,””

    Embarrassing Nonsense!

  • http://yourbutt.com me!

    2nd COmMEnT for tHe WiN!!!!!

  • Iowa

    11 years late but worth all the billions!

  • Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor)

    @Georg: Fixed the bit about solid-state lasers.

  • Devils Advocate

    If the object you’re hitting with a laser is highly reflective (ie Chrome) would it even work? It seems like a missle or high-caliber rounds would be much more effective at a much lower cost. Wouldn’t some kind of mirror-system render a laser weapon useless?

  • http://tispaquin.blogspot.com Douglas Watts

    Well at least all that money wasn’t used on something useful.

  • Steve Klein

    Couldn’t they test it on something just a LITTLE LESS EXPENSIVE? Did they really have to burn up $30K in Mercury outboards to prove a point? I mean a wooden target would burn too. What a complete waste of tax payer money. They Navy should be embarassed by even providing this video. It makes me sick to my stomach……

  • Theo

    Steve: I agree. It is also sick, stupid, evil and wrong. A waste of everyone’s talents. Look forward to the day when the construction of weapons is made a criminal act. Which it is.

  • Kees

    I’m not a big fan of the military, but I don’t think this project is a complete waste of money. This could be a relatively safe way to disable pirates; you don’t have to kill them if they refuse to stop.

  • IanW

    The Joint Chiefs of Staff were just beaming until they discovered that it doesn’t work in the smokey conditions typically encountered during your average battle….

  • Markus

    I second DA: Wouldn’t one round of .50 cal AP ammo have achieved the same thing in a fraction of the time and cost a fraction?
    Lasers are horribly powerhungry and I fail to see which substantial advantage a laser provides to compensate for this?
    Absence of recoil is hardly enough…

  • pedro

    Another product of back asswards “political correctness”. Just shoot the damn pirates with reliable guns and bullets – cheap, quick, and easy. However, lasers could be effective weapons in certain combat situations, so at least it’s not a total loss.

  • MT-LA

    Sorry for the serial post, but:

    @DA (#5) – No mirror has 100% reflection. Any energy that is not reflected is, therefore, absorbed. I’m willing to bet that any mirror you put in front of such a high intensity laser would quickly become un-mirror like. A defender would need a way to channel a LOT of heat away from the surface of the mirror.

    @SK (#7) – This was (most likely) not the first test. The Navy probably did do multiple tests on much cheaper targets to prove the concept. This was a proof in real world conditions against something that accurately represents the “threat”. Hypothetical: suppose they went all the way through R&D, production, and started fielding this weapon system *without* testing it on an actual outboard motor. Wouldn’t you call that kind of irresponsible?

    @Markus(#11) – A .50 cal would not have achieved this faster. We’re talking speed of light, with the ability to redirect (point) the beam at a moving target. But perhaps you mean that the laser was shining on the motor for a while before it caught fire, and therefore a single shot of a .50 cal would do the same thing in a fraction of the time…if you could hit the motor with a .50 cal. Do you notice how the boat is bobbing in the water? I believe the top-notch snipers have already proven that they can hit a target under these conditions, but having a sniper on every boat that needs to defend itself isn’t realistic. Furthermore, this technology would likely be used to defend against ballistics and surface threats. I doubt very much that a sniper could hit a ballistic…the Phalanx system has already been battle-proven to hit ballistics, so we have the tracking and aiming tech in place.

    @pedro(#12): the idea is to have multiple zones of engagement. You start with deterrence (low power laser, directed at the “pirates” or whatever your fantasy). You move up to disable (high-power laser aimed at the motors or other systems to disable the target). Finally, if that doesn’t work, then you can engage in your little shoot-em-up. It’s not being PC…it’s being respectful of human life until you have no other option.

  • pedro

    @ MT – While having respect for human life is important, these pirates don’t have respect for any other human life. If I was a captain and these guys were trying to kill or kidnap my crew, I wouldn’t hesitate to take them out right away. That’s not a lack of respect for human life, it’s self defense. Ships are already equipped with water cannons and the like but they are not effective. The reason for these non-lethal “weapons” is that international law forbids crews from using lethal force – an absolute “PC” move.

    Furthermore, you can always fire warning shots along their path as a deterrent without having to open lethal fire. In this case, ammo and modern weapons are very effective, but “PC” restricts their use, thus provoking research on alternative weapons. It’s the same mentality used to fight against the death penalty for the most heinous crimes and working to fight against gun ownership. There’s good people and bad people, not all humans are equally worthy of our respect.

    If someone was to torture defenseless animals, would you respect them? Would you still respect these pirates if they came after you and your family? Killed a family member? Would you not shoot to kill if someone was trying to kill or kidnap you? It’s you or them, and they don’t care about you.

  • MT-LA

    @pedro: If you were a captain of a Navy ship and pirates were after your crew and treasure, then you would most likely have full permission from your admiral to engage the enemy as you saw fit.

    If you were a captain of a commercial ship, then this laser tech would not be available to you and you would have to resort to whatever other means you would like to defend yourself.

    My point: we really shouldn’t even be talking about pirates here because pirates don’t intentionally go up against Navy warships. This is military tech meant to defend against military threats. And yes…pirates would become military threats as soon as they showed any aggression against a Navy vessel. One day it might be available to civilians, but that’s probably a long way off. Also…I’ve officially reached my limit on how much I can talk about pirates without Disney somehow coming down on me.

  • pedro

    That was the point. Civilians should have the right to defend themselves as they see fit and the majority of those captains and crew are merchant marines and ex-military. There’s just more common sense reasonable measures that can be taken without wasting millions of tax payer dollars for non-essential measures. Pedro out, hoorah!

  • TerryS.

    I quote: “global security company Northrop Grumman”. This was taken off the heading on their website. Let’s call a spade a spade; Northrop Grumman is a Defence Contractor, not a global security company! What a pile of marketeering…

    P.S. pedro and MT-LA; this isn’t your private discussion board. Take your arguments somewhere else.

  • pedro

    Thanks for being the new blog police Terry. Last I checked this is a public blog and we have the right to exercise the first amendment. :-)

    It’s not like we’re talking off topic, using profanity, or personal attacks; it’s a good clean debate. It’s not directly about the Somali pirates, but that’s essentially what provoked research on these types of weapons. Guess our opinions don’t matter as much as yours…

  • Anthony

    If any private citizen can afford this laser, and can power it from their boat, then hats off to you. Toast your threat like a marshmellow. This can be considered just another from of self-defense in that respect.

    I personally do not think this is a waste of time or money. Computers were much the same way at first. Think of what these first lasers are in an historical context.

  • http://bossy-girls.net/ Lila Sovietskaya

    Good weapon. It is not usable for targets that out of line site. Time that the laser spends on target is important. A laser does not need to use visible light. A gamma ray laser makes a good anti-personnel weapon. However unless of very high power it will not do damage needed to ‘neutralize’ a target. Use of lasers requires new defenses against them. Remember if we have lasers ‘they’ have lasers. protection against laser is a mirror like armor that reflects and does not absorb the laser. personnel needs anti-laser instant action photochromic goggles and vests that have some reflective defense. Best defense for personnel will be the invisibility or automatic camouflage vest. See and not be seen is one on the main rules of moder combat. Another rule is: seem the first before they see you and shoot first. :-) The Future is BRIGHT :-(

    The best way to prevent a war is to start one.
    Congratulate me, I started talking like a military person. Maybe I am under the influence of ‘1984’ doublespeak

  • TheCritic


    “Steve: I agree. It is also sick, stupid, evil and wrong. A waste of everyone’s talents. Look forward to the day when the construction of weapons is made a criminal act. Which it is.”

    Sure. I’ll agree to that statement. Totally a criminal act. Just so you know. Everyone with a gun agrees, but they just want you to give up your ability to defend yourself first. THEN, they’ll drop their own weapons. Because as you know, humanity is so all about cooperation.

    The day a country makes it illegal to develop measures of protecting itself will be the day that country ceases to be in power over its future. I hope that the things you hope for never come to fruition.

  • charl

    rays in general is the future for warfare. Check out H.A.A.R.P

  • Wil

    This particular laser weapon seems like it might be better used for short, non-lethal bursts against personnel, rather than ships. It seems like it could humble or incapacitate a fair number of people (pirates or terrorists?), at a distance.

    As is said above, it does not seem to hold up against more conventional existing weapons, as a ship destroyer.

  • http://crumblingsanctuary.blogspot.com Ignatyus

    Yes, they fried a boat with it.

    That is not what it’s job will be.
    They’re not using this in leiu of regular ballistics, but in cases where regular ballistics aren’t enough. Blowing up missiles & RPGs, burning up drones programmed with evasive maneuvers, pinpoint shots, ones that would be near impossible without computer targeting (igniting an object in between people), or targeting firearms & heating them so the human targets must drop them.

  • http://google david

    I am not a fan of weapons either but if we don’t continue to advance our knowledge of them, somebody else will.

  • http://google david

    That weapon needs a lot more fire power. The engine did not ‘blow up’. A small fire started on it that could have been extinguished with a bucket of water.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


80beats is DISCOVER's news aggregator, weaving together the choicest tidbits from the best articles covering the day's most compelling topics.

See More

Collapse bottom bar