The U.S. Navy is happy to demonstrate their new LaWS — Laser Weapon System — in this short video showing it turning a small charge into popcorn from a distance. The system has been in development for a few years and this test, from last month, shows that the laser system is performing above expectations.
The 100 kilowatt laser here sends 30 kilowatts of energy downrange at distances not released to the public aboard the USS Ponce, which is currently deployed to the Persian Gulf.
Importantly, the laser system can’t be used against humans, that much is prohibited by the rules of engagement, which is why the target in this test is an explosive charge, just a few feet away from a dummy.
While the Ponce is prohibited from targeting people with the laser, they have complete clearance to blow up people’s stuff, which in the long run, is the ultimate target. In this demonstration they show that they are more than capable of destroying a bomb carried aboard a small vessel, the sort of improvised attack the Navy needs to ward against more than any other.
Increasingly, the Navy has found that their most common targets aren’t hardened fleets of battleships but off-the-shelf watercraft loaded with explosives as well as manned and unmanned weaponized drones.
These swarm-based systems become more affordable every day and current conventional weapon systems can’t defend against them.
Even if it were possible to carry a missile payload capable of defeating a swarm attack it would amount to a battle of attrition, as missiles run around $1 to $2 million dollars each. The LaWS costs a single dollar to shoot, literally a million times cheaper than missiles, even cheaper than gunpowder-based weapons.
The core idea behind the LaWS is having a defense against any number of aerial or water-borne drones loaded with small discrete charges that can ride the decks of naval vessels in all waters.
According to Defense One, the current LaWS isn’t even the most powerful laser system the Navy plans to put to sea. The Navy plans to have a laser system as powerful as 150 kilowatts at sea by 2016.
The system hasn’t been used against enemy targets yet, although the Ponce has full clearance to throw the switch if necessary. So far the Ponce has used it for daily training purposes, and they’re getting pretty confident with the system.
Eventually, the military expects to roll out laser systems with every branch for defense against swarm attacks such as unmanned drones and other threats like IEDs, combined with a detection and tracking system.
In fact, developing a tracking system was one of the more important parts of the LaWS’ development; not the laser itself. The power and precision of the laser system has developed incrementally over the years into a devastating weapon, but the main hurdle, given the Navy’s restrictions, has been making it accurate.
At a Pentagon briefing, Rear Adm. Matthew Klunder told reporters that the new tracking system was like having the “Hubble telescope at sea.”
The laser system can be used at lower powers against targets as well, “dazzling” them, disrupting their optics and other systems. At lower levels the LaWS can be just as effective. “We knocked an [unmanned aerial vehicle] out of the sky in literally two seconds before it could even catch on fire,” said Klunder to Defense One. “We not only burned a hole through but destroyed everything inside it.”
The LaWS may be one of a kind, but Klunder is positive it can perform in real-world scenarios if called on, and the Ponce has every permission to use it if necessary.