Lasers are no longer science-fiction: Watch the US Navy blow up stuff with a 30-kilowatt weapon
The US navy has demonstrated a ship-mounted laser weapon system in the Persian Gulf, off the coast of Iran, capable of destroying targets on speeding boats or even aircraft with pin-point accuracy, it told reporters Wednesday.
The laser weapon is 30 kilowatts in power, which makes it 30m times more powerful than a hand-held laser pointer. It can be run at lower power, to “dazzle” – which disrupts or damages sensors and instruments – or at full power to destroy targets.
In a video of the demonstration, the device is shown targeting a mounted missile on a speeding boat, and then first dazzling, then destroying, an unmanned aerial drone in mid-flight.
The navy was keen to point out that this was not just a scientific test – the laser device is fully operational. “We’re not testing any more – it’s working,” Rear Admiral Matthew Klunder, the chief of naval research, said in a press conference at the Pentagon Wednesday.
The prototype device is mounted on the USS Ponce, an Austin-class amphibious transport vessel. Because the Ponce is 43 years old – one of the oldest vessels in the US navy – the laser weapon was installed with its own power generator, though Klunder said that newer vessels would be able to use their own power grid.
According to a release from the navy, sailors working with the laser – which is officially designated Laser Weapon System, or LaWS – say that it has performed “flawlessly, including in adverse weather conditions,” and that it has exceeded expectations for reliability.
The laser has not yet been fired in anger, but Klunder said that it is fully battle-ready if it is to be needed. “If we have to defend that ship today, we will [use the laser] to destroy a threat that comes,” he said. The Captain of the Ponce has authorisation to use the weapon, if the situation calls for it.
The device is operated using what Klunder said “looks a lot like a game controller, Xbox, PS4 or whatever.” He added, “Any of you that can do Xbox or PS4, you’ll be good with this.”
Rear Admiral Bryant Fuller, deputy commander of ship design, integration and naval engineering at naval sea systems command, added that an effect of the video-game like design of the controller was that those joining the navy “are [already] very good at it.”
The location of the demonstration, close to Iranian waters in the Persian Gulf, may be seen as boastful, if not outrightly provocative, but Fuller denied that there was any ulterior motives behind the location of the testing site and said that it was chosen because harsh conditions in the area allowed them to test the device to its fullest capacity.
One advantage the laser system has over traditional weapons systems is its cost. The price of firing – or “flyaway” cost – a missile, Klunder said, can be as much as $2m each, while the flyway cost of the laser system is just the price of the electricity it takes to power the device – 59 cents per shot.
According to Fuller, the entire cost of installing the system on the Ponce, including its separate power-generation system, cooling systems and control station, was $40m, but that, he said, would come down considerably “if we are going to mass-produce.”
Klunder said that the device is not powerful enough to destroy “frigate-sized vessels,” but said that there was a 150 kilowatt laser weapon – five times as powerful as the one mounted on the Ponce – currently in development.
Under Protocol IV of the Geneva Convention (added in 1995), laser weapons are currently banned for use against humans. This is perhaps why, in the demonstration, wooden human figures are propped up on the target boat, to show that the system is accurate enough to destroy mounted weaponry while avoiding human targets.
“We will not point lasers at people,” said Klunder. “We are going to honor the conventions.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2014
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