Laser Guns: The FUTURE of the US Navy

USS Ponce

By Debbie Gregory.

Back in January, Military Connection told you about the Army’s test of its newest weapon, the High Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator (HEL MD). We knew it wouldn’t be long before there was another force using high energy lasers. Let’s just be glad that it’s one of our own. Recently, the U.S. Navy announced that it will deploy its own laser system onboard a surface warship by the end of 2014.

The USS Ponce (AFSB(I)-15) is expected to be the first ship to be fitted with the Navy’s new Laser Weapon System (LaWS). The Ponce was originally the last of the Austin Class LPDs, and was almost decommissioned in 2012. Instead, the Ponce, named for the city of Ponce in Puerto Rico, was tapped to be refitted into an interim Afloat Forward Staging Base for mine counter-measure and coastal patrol vessels. The Ponce is expected to carry the LaWS out on its initial tests this summer.

The Navy’s LaWS was designed and built by the Naval Sea Systems Command as a more economical means to destroy Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (also called UAVs or drones), small boats, and other air or surface threats to U.S. Navy ships. The LaWS uses a solid-state laser, which can be operated by a single sailor, most likely a Fire Controlman (FC), the rate who normally maintains and operates the combat weapons systems onboard U.S. Navy ships. The weapon will use the solid-state laser to burn a hole through its target or fry any electronic

Including a laser weapon system to the arsenal on warships has several advantages. The first and foremost is the long-term cost of the weapon system. Missiles that the Navy currently uses can cost up to $1 million apiece- that’s just for each individual projectile. The LaWS was designed to utilize existing detection systems that are already present aboard ships, primarily the detection system for the Close-in Weapon System (CIWS), pronounced “Sea Wiz”.

But there are disadvantages to using laser systems for naval warfare. Lasers tend to lose effectiveness, especially in range and accuracy, in inclement weather. Rain, dust, fog, clouds and turbulence in the atmosphere can interfere with a laser’s effectiveness. Unfortunately, all of these conditions are highly likely at sea. That is why most likely LaWS won’t completely replace all other systems, but will be used in addition to existing combat weapon systems.

The LaWS is not the only futuristic weaponry that the U.S. Navy is currently working on. Within the next two or three years, two more projects should be completed. The Navy is working on a rail gun system that can fire projectile rounds at a velocity of up to seven times the speed of sound. The Navy is also nearing completion of its newest destroyer, the USS Zumwalt. The sight and size of this ship can only be compared to Star Destroyer from George Lucas’ “Star Wars” saga. The Zumwalts construction is on schedule to be completed this year and she is expected to be combat-ready in 2016.