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U.S. Navy sees shipboard laser weapon coming soon

A solid-state laser will be installed on the USS Ponce, and it may well end up parked in the Persian Gulf.

U.S, Navy LAWS laser weapon system
The U.S. Navy's LAWS laser weapon demonstrator, temporarily installed aboard the guided-missile destroyer USS Dewey.
U.S. Navy photo by John F. Williams

The U.S. Navy is continuing its flirtation with laser weapons.

The latest tip-toeing move toward a more serious relationship came today with word from the Navy that it plans to deploy a solid-state laser weapon system aboard the USS Ponce in fiscal year 2014. Other than that, though, the announcement was absent any details about the capabilities of the particular laser weapon system or the expectations for its performance, though the Navy talked up the virtues of laser weapons in general as a countermeasure against threats including aerial drones and fast-moving small boats.

The Navy also described the deployment as an "at-sea demonstration," suggesting that this will be yet another in a string of test-the-waters efforts that have long characterized the Pentagon's dalliances with directed-energy weapons. Indeed, the Navy said that following the USS Ponce demonstration, it and the Defense Department will "continue to research ways to integrate affordable laser weapons into the fleet."

Perhaps the demonstration has more to do with who'll be looking at the system. The New York Times reported that the ship bearing the laser weapon prototype, which cost just under $32 million, will be deployed to the Persian Gulf where it could serve as a warning to Iran.

Or perhaps the message is directed as much at budget watchers in Congress. The Navy emphasized the potential cost-effectiveness of laser weapons compared with old-fashioned missiles. "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."

To underscore its message, the Navy also shared a video of a laser demonstrator heating up and taking down a drone aircraft, as we've seen in some other demos in recent years: