During a year of budget cuts that has the U.S. military freaking out, the Navy is improbably signaling it’ll take major steps forward on developing laser cannons.
Next month, the Navy plans to devote a big panel discussion on the “Breakthrough Technologies” behind energy weapons at its annual D.C.-area confab known as Sea Air Space. Heading it will be the officer charged with moving those lasers out of sci-fi and onto ships, Rear Adm. Matthew Klunder, the Navy’s chief of research. It’ll be a de facto prologue to a far more significant event the Navy plans in the coming months: the first-ever demonstration tour of a laser gun aboard a surface ship, the U.S.S. Ponce.
That’s a major show of confidence in laser technology, for two reasons. First, testing a laser gun — most likely a solid-state laser — on a ship at sea puts enormous pressure on a much-hyped weapon to show-and-prove. Second, the laser isn’t going on any old ship, it’s going on the Ponce, recently retrofitted to become an “Afloat Forward Staging Base” — that is, a new launchpad for attack helicopters, drones and commandos for, among other missions, counterterrorism raids. In other words, the Navy is putting laser weaponry aboard one of the ships it’s most eager to highlight.
All of this is still a demonstration — one with the added and perhaps unintended consequence of adding more hype to a form of weapon that’s been nothing but hype for literally decades. But it comes at a time when congressionally mandated budget shortfalls have the Navy scaling back nearly everything it plans on doing this year. Research cash is especially scarce. Yet one of the naval community’s biggest laser advocates argues that the unique features of so-called “directed energy” weaponry are particularly well-suited for an era of tighter budgets.
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