Navy's Drone-Zapping Laser Declared a Success

By Valerie Insinna

Over the first few months of its deployment in the Persian Gulf, the Navy’s new laser gun has proven it’s capable of taking down small unmanned aircraft and blasting through the engines of small watercraft, the chief of naval research told reporters Dec. 10.

The laser weapons system, or LaWS, hasn’t engaged an actual enemy threat yet, but it has been cleared for operational use and could be employed to defend the transport ship USS Ponce, where the laser was installed and tested, said Rear Adm. Matthew Klunder.

“If we had to defend that ship today, we will destroy a threat" with the laser weapons system "and we have the [rules of engagement] to support that," he said.

LaWS was installed on the Ponce this summer and has been operational since September, said Rear Adm. Bryant Fuller, deputy commander of ship design, integration and naval engineering at

Naval Sea Systems Command. The system includes six welding lasers that converge on a single target.

Although the system cost $40 million to develop, it can fire a shot for 59 cents, Klunder said. Compared to missiles that can cost hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars, that’s a good return on investment, he argued.

Videos presented to the media showed the laser destroying the motor of a small attack boat, as well as dazzling and blowing up an unmanned aerial vehicle.

"The amazing thing here, literally, is that we knocked the UAV out of the sky in less than two seconds, before it could even catch on fire,” Klunder said. "We've been able to really get it where we need it to be in terms of refining the target points on those vehicles so they can be destroyed or disabled quickly."

The power of the laser can be scaled up or down, he said. It can be used as a “dazzler” to warn a potential adversary, to disable ships or sensors and to destroy small threats.

The laser also could disable larger craft or helicopters, Klunder said. “I’m not going to tell you that this was designed to take out frigate-sized ships,” he added. “Not today.” Future lasers, however, will be able to take on larger aircraft and ships.

LaWS’s optical system is so sophisticated that sailors have also employed it as a targeting and surveillance asset, he said.

Klunder declined to comment on the range of the optical system, but “We're picking up what may be potentially a bad person on a ship drinking a soda. We can get it down to that of resolution,” he said. "It's almost like a Hubble telescope at sea. Literally, we're able to get that kind of power and magnification with it."

Despite the achievements on the Ponce, Klunder said the Navy has no intention of buying more 30-kilowatt lasers. Instead, it is developing a more powerful 150-kilowatt weapon — which will be delivered as early as 2016 — and may pursue a larger-scale deployment of that system.        

“That’s the one we’re really targeting for potentially more extensive use,” he said. ONR and Naval Sea Systems Command have been working to identify which ships in the fleet would be best suited to accommodate future laser weapons.

In the meantime, LaWS is expected to continue its one-year deployment on the Ponce, although that could be extended, Klunder said.

The Navy deployed LaWS to the Persian Gulf to test the system’s ability to endure extreme environmental conditions, Klunder said. In the past months, it has encountered high temperatures, levels of humidity and sea states and has withstood a 30-knot dust storm without coming out of alignment.

A small group of sailors on the Ponce is responsible for the operation and basic maintenance of the system, Fuller said.

“The fact that we're able to integrate as part of a 43-year old ship tells you that it’s easy to integrate,” he said. The system has its own cooling system and diesel power generator, and is networked with the Ponce’s navigation radar and close-in weapons system.

Klunder said sailors on the ship use LaWS daily for training, gathering intelligence and to test its destructive power.

Topics: Armaments, Science and Engineering Technology

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