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The U.S. Navy is scheduled to deploy one of its ships, the USS Ponce, to sea with a laser weapon. Yes, laser—like the Star Wars kind.

The USS Ponce will deploy with the Laser Weapons System, or LaWS, which is described by the U.S. Navy as a solid-state fiber laser that is designed to snuff out threats the ship or its friends might encounter like enemy drones, small boats, light aircraft and missiles. The range and power levels of the weapon remain classified, however, because the LaWS is a prototype combat system, according to U.S. Navy officials.

The U.S. Navy said the scheduled 2014 deployment is seen as a final in-theater evaluation of the weapons system not only for the laser weapon technology but also the integration of the system with sailors who will operate it. “One of the key benefits of the system being installed onboard the USS Ponce is its ease of use,” said U.S. Navy Captain Mike Ziv, program manager for directed energy and electric weapons at Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA). “Engineers working on the system have simplified the control system so that it can be operated by a single sailor with only minimal training, particularly sailors already familiar with standard Navy combat systems.”

 

Laser Power

Lasers have proven both useful and cost-effective for the Navy. In fact, according to Ziv, the U.S. Navy was interested in the technology for a lot of reasons. “Directed-energy weapons offer the Navy game-changing capability in terms of speed-of-light engagement, deep magazines, multi-mission functionality and affordable solutions,” Ziv said. “The primary reason the Navy is pursuing laser technology at this time is because they are extremely affordable due to their very low engagement costs (low costs per shot), which is critical in the current fiscal environment.

“Laser weapons complement kinetic weapons currently onboard surface combatants and offer a few specific advantages,” Ziv said. Against specific threats, the cost per engagement is orders of magnitude less expensive than comparable missile engagements. Lasers offer precision engagements without the associated collateral damage of an exploding warhead, and the firing capacity of a laser is deep, as no magazine is required, only power and cooling.”

Learning LaWS

So what exactly is the LaWS? According to Ziv, the Laser Weapons System is a government prototype designed to leverage advances in commercial laser technology for use in a rugged, robust laser weapon. The MIT grad said the LaWS uses a combination of commercial- and government-researched technology specifically utilizing commercial lasers, a commercial tracking mount and commercial optics with customized software controls. According to Ziv, the system is capable of identifying, illuminating, tracking and lasing enemy surface and air threats.

Ziv framed the LaWS as an additional weapon for the U.S. Navy and not merely a replacement in its arsenal. “Lasers can complement conventional kinetic energy weapons, like guns or missiles, as laser targeting can increase accuracy, ranging and illumination,” said Ziv, who pointed out that laser Illumination has already been successfully demonstrated and shown to be cost effective in laser-guided bombs (LGBs).

“The Department of Defense began funding research in high-energy lasers soon after the invention of the laser in 1960, when it was thought that they might (if scalable to high power) have tremendous impact on how wars were fought,” said Ziv.

According to Ziv, things really got going for the U.S. Navy and a functional, safe and deployable laser in 2011. “Solid-state laser technology with weapons-level effects has been maturing rapidly, and recent advancements by the scientific and commercial sectors have begun to show that a potential application on surface combatants is possible. In particular, the ONR Maritime Laser Demonstration (MLD) for the first time in 2011 took a laser to sea and successfully conducted a mission scenario against a representative small-boat threat, while underway.”

 

Building Upon Success

According to Ziv, approximately $40M has been spent over the last six years developing underlying technologies, assembling hardware and conducting demonstrations under the LaWS program. The LaWS is currently being upgraded and reconfigured under the resulting solid-state laser quick-reaction capability in order to support an extended deployment aboard the USS Ponce. Ziv said many original components that were cost efficient and available to support a limited performance in a low-intensity technical demonstration are being replaced with more rugged, reliable and higher-efficiency components to better survive and operate in the maritime environment. “The total three-year cost for the system upgrades, installation of the initial deployment and required pre-operational testing planned under the QRC program is expected to total $38 million,” said Ziv, who added that costs to develop a future deployable system will be determined as the program moves into the acquisition stages.

Ziv concluded as follows, “This system is expected to reach initial operating capability in the 2017 to 2021 timeframe depending on the developmental timeframe.No specific platforms have been identified, but the Navy believes most surface ships have the electrical capacity to support the Laser Weapon System.”

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