U.S. Navy Sending New Laser Weapon to the Gulf ; Prototype Can Carry out an Array of Missions, and Each Use Costs Only $1

By Shanker, Thom | International Herald Tribune, April 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

U.S. Navy Sending New Laser Weapon to the Gulf ; Prototype Can Carry out an Array of Missions, and Each Use Costs Only $1


Shanker, Thom, International Herald Tribune


The relatively cheap system can carry out a graduated scale of missions and offers the Navy historic opportunities, a nonpartisan study for Congress said.

The U.S. Navy is going to sea for the first time with a laser attack weapon that has been shown in tests to disable patrol boats and blind or destroy surveillance drones.

A prototype shipboard laser will be deployed on a converted amphibious transport and docking ship in the Gulf, where Iranian fast-attack boats have harassed U.S. warships. The government in Tehran is also building remotely piloted aircraft carrying surveillance pods and, someday potentially, rockets.

The laser will not be operational until next year. The announcement on Monday by Adm. Jonathan W. Greenert, the chief of naval operations, seemed meant as a warning to Iran not to step up activity in the Gulf in the next few months if tensions increase because of sanctions and the impasse in negotiations over the Iranian nuclear program. The Navy released video and still images of the laser weapon burning through a drone during a test firing.

The laser is designed to carry out a graduated scale of missions, from burning through a fast-attack boat or a drone to producing a nonlethal burst to "dazzle" an adversary's sensors and render them useless without causing any other physical damage.

The Pentagon has a long history of grossly inflating claims for its experimental weapons, but a nonpartisan study for Congress said the weapon offered the Navy historic opportunities.

"Equipping Navy surface ships with lasers could lead to changes in naval tactics, ship design and procurement plans for ship-based weapons, bringing about a technological shift for the Navy -- a 'game changer' -- comparable to the advent of shipboard missiles in the 1950s," said the assessment by the Congressional Research Service, a branch of the Library of Congress.

The study found that the new high-energy laser "could provide Navy surface ships with a more cost-effective means of countering certain surface, air and ballistic missile targets."

Among the limitations, according to the research service, is that lasers are not effective in bad weather because the beam can be disturbed or scattered by water vapor, as well as by smoke, sand and dust. It is also a "line of sight" weapon, meaning that the target has to be visible, so it cannot handle threats over the horizon. …

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