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.


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