Lasers Go to Sea

A new era of warfare crept in on little cat feet this week, unnoticed by the world at large: the U.S. Navy announced the deployment of its first combat laser to the Persian Gulf.

Since last August, the amphibious transport USS Ponce has been armed with a 30-kilowatt laser capable of destroying enemy drones and small attack boats.  The Laser Weapons System (LWS) was developed by the Navy Weapons System Command at a relatively low price (for a new class of weapon) of $40 million.  It passed both static and seagoing tests before being deployed to the Gulf.

Deployment aboard the Ponce amounts to an operational test.  The sea is an unforgiving environment, and the Navy needs to see how such a sensitive system operates in the humidity, heat, dust, haze, and strain of a typical seagoing tour.

Lasers could prove to be critical weapons in the Gulf.  After their whipping at the hands of the U.S. Navy in 1988’s Operation Praying Mantis, the Iranians switched their maritime strategy to one that involved overwhelming an enemy using swarm attacks carried out with sea-skimming missiles and high-speed attack boats manned by volunteer martyrs.  A laser effectively operating at light speed would go a long way toward negating such threats.

While still a far cry from the Starship Enterprise’s phaser bank, the Laser Weapon System is a first step toward a class of weapon that way well dominate the coming millennium the way gunpowder dominated the last one.  As development continues, we may well see laser weapons mounted on tanks and aircraft, used to fight standoff battles at sea, and at last rendering the ICBM obsolete (as foreseen by none other than Ronald Reagan thirty years ago).  We will be watching future developments in the Gulf with interest.