U.S. Navy Deploys Its First Laser Weapon in the Persian Gulf

USS Ponce
The amphibious transport ship USS Ponce in the Arabian Gulf on Sept. 25, 2014. Source: U.S. Navy, Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Daniel M. Young via Bloomberg

The U.S. Navy has deployed on a command ship in the Persian Gulf its first laser weapon capable of destroying a target.

The amphibious transport ship USS Ponce has been patrolling with a prototype 30-kilowatt-class Laser Weapon System since late August, according to officials. The laser is mounted facing the bow, and can be fired in several modes -- from a dazzling warning flash to a destructive beam -- and can set a drone or small boat on fire.

The Ponce “provides a unique platform” to deploy the new capability “in an operationally relevant region,” Vice Admiral John Miller, the 5th Fleet commander, said in an e-mailed statement. The ship is the 5th Fleet’s primary command and control afloat staging base for operations

Since 2011, the Navy has boosted its presence in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz, through which a fifth of the world’s traded oil flows. Equipped with naval mines and small vessels that practice swarming tactics to attack larger warships, Iranian officials have periodically threatened to close the waterway.

The Navy laser wasn’t specifically designed or deployed to counter Iran’s arsenal of small armed vessels, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert said in an interview earlier this year.

“I wouldn’t target a country for a weapon, nor would I preclude putting together a weapons system for a country by itself,” he said.

The laser deployment is “a worthwhile experiment” because “it’ll help us feel out the operational limitations” such as power constraints, Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer said at a Bloomberg Government breakfast in April.

Testing the Weapon

However, he said, “I still think we have some work to do on the technology side.”

“What am I looking for? How does it operate in that environment -- heat, humidity, dust and at sea,” Greenert said in the interview. “It’s got to roll, move around, how much power does it take to sustain it?”

“I have to take it out and get it wet, and the Arabian Gulf’s a pretty tough environment,” he said.

Naval Sea Systems Command technicians developed the prototype over seven years at a cost of about $40 million. The Ponce crew was authorized to deploy the weapon after it passed a series of at-sea tests, including lasing static surface targets, the 5th Fleet spokesman Commander Kevin Stephens said in an e-mail statement.

The prototype focuses the light from six solid-state commercial welding lasers on a single spot, according to a July 31 Congressional Research Service report. It “can effectively counter surface and airborne threats, to include small boats” and drones, Miller said, and firing it costs about a dollar a shot, according to the Navy.

Adjustable Strength

The device can emit progressively stronger beams, first to warn an adversary, and then destroy it if necessary, Chief of Naval Research Rear Admiral Matthew Klunder said at a Bloomberg Government session this year.

The laser can be adjusted to fire a non-lethal dazzling flash at an incoming vessel so they know it’s there “all the way to lethal,” Klunder said. The laser’s range is classified.

New York-based L-3 Communications Holdings LLC and Pennsylvania State University’s Electro Optics Center have provided components and engineering support.

The lessons from the one-year Ponce deployment will feed Navy laser development by industry teams led by BAE Systems Plc, Northrop Grumman Corp. and Raytheon Co., to field a more powerful weapon, possibly by 2021.

Those efforts are separate from military laser designators to guide precision munitions, non-lethal crowd control devices or discontinued instruments intended to blind enemy electro-optical sensors.

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