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Navy's laser weapon is thwarted by Mother Nature

Fri, 02/21/2014 - 8:13am
Jason Lomberg, Technical Editor

Sci-Fi geeks rejoice — the U.S. Navy’s shipboard laser weapon will deploy this summer. *Cue John Williams soundtrack*

But the Laser Weapon System (LaWS) — while dirt-cheap to operate — is hamstrung by Mother Nature: Inclement weather — plus a host of other conditions — could limit its effectiveness. Bummer....

First, the good news: The LaWS will be installed aboard the USS Ponce — an Austin-class amphibious transport dock — for a 1-year trial deployment. The laser weapon will target “asymmetrical threats” — enemy drones, speed boats, and swarm boats, or any threat where shipboard munitions would be impractical or overkill.

The solid-state weapon system uses the Phalanx Close in Weapon System’s (CIWS) radar track to obtain a target and combines six high-energy laser into a focused beam of light. To the naked eye, the weapon omits nothing but a bright flash, but LaWS’ lethality is supposedly that of a “blowtorch”.

Read: Star Wars on the high seas: Navy plans to deploy shipboard laser by 2014

LaWS uses about 30 kilowatts of electricity per volley — a few dollars a shot — and the weapon has already gone 12/12 in live-fire tests. The weapon is so streamlined that a single sailor can operate it.

"It fundamentally changes the way we fight," said Capt. Mike Ziv, program manager for directed energy and electric weapon systems for the Naval Sea Systems Command.

Peter Morrison, the Office of Naval Research program manager for LaWS, previously noted that "The solid-state laser is a big step forward to revolutionizing modern warfare with directed energy, just as gunpowder did in the era of knives and swords."

Compared to AGM-84 Harpoon missiles — $700K per unit — LaWS is absurdly cheap. The laser weapon "gets ahead of the cost curve", said Captain Ziv.

But standard munitions can operate in environments that would render LaWS ineffective or completely inoperable.

Lasers lose their potency in clouds, dust, precipitation, or turbulence in the atmosphere. And this could prove extremely costly, even catastrophic. At best, LaWS is ineffective in the rain. At worst, the laser weapon system fails at a crucial moment — say, with incoming hostiles.

LaWS certainly lands on the “affordable” side of weapons acquisition — total program cost of about $40 million, $38 million per unit, and a few dollars per volley. But often will LaWS prove ineffective? If we’re lucky, the bad guys will be polite enough to only attack under ideal weather conditions.

I’m reminded of von Moltke's famous quote that "No plan survives contact with the enemy."

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