The Navy plans to install a laser gun on a ship next year to zap dangerous swarming small boats and flying drones in the Persian Gulf.
Pentagon officials say the $32 million high-technology system offers the Navy a weapon at a fraction of the cost of its traditional arsenal — such as cruise missiles and rapid-fire Gatling guns.
“Our conservative data tells us a shot of directed energy costs under $1,” Chief of Naval Research Rear Adm. Matthew Klunder said in a statement. “Compare that to the hundreds of thousands of dollars it costs to fire a missile, and you can begin to see the merits of this capability.”
The laser’s power also can be scaled down, presenting the Navy a non-lethal alternative to ward off threats such as pirates, terrorists and smugglers.
“Because lasers run on electricity, they can be fired as long as there is power and provide a measure of safety as they don’t require carrying propellants and explosives aboard ships,” the Navy said.
The technology, called the Laser Weapon System, was developed by engineers and scientists from the Navy, defense industry and academia. It involves commercial fiber solid-state lasers and has already shot down a flying target.
It will be deployed onboard the U.S. warship Ponce in 2014.
The announcement to deploy the laser comes as military researchers continue to try to make progress on so-called directed energy weapons.
In 2011, the Navy had success with a laser system mounted on a warship when it fired and set fire to an empty motorboat as it bobbed in the Pacific Ocean. It was the first time in history the Navy pulled off the feat.
But in general, the development of laser technology has been fraught with setbacks.
Last year, the Missile Defense Agency’s airborne laser program was canceled after more than 15 years of development and $5 billion in federal funding.
The program involved a Boeing 747 jumbo jet equipped with an advanced tracking system and a massive laser gun on its nose to identify and obliterate ballistic missiles as they lift off. But the program experienced a series of cost overruns and delays. It never went beyond testing.
The Navy’s desired targets with the Laser Weapon System are far smaller and slower.
Following next year’s Ponce demonstration — which would come two years ahead of schedule — Navy and Pentagon officials said they would continue to research ways to integrate affordable laser weapons into the Navy fleet.
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