As part of its annual training exercises in the Persian Gulf, the U.S. Navy has begun testing a prototype of its High Energy Laser (HEL) weapon. The futuristic device could be used to shoot down drones and small attack boats.
The weapon, which has been fitted to the USS Ponce, is the first laser system to be operationally deployed by the U.S. military. It's still at the prototype stage, but it's being fielded to evaluate its capabilities in a real-world environment. Eventually, the Navy plans to equip a number of U.S. ships with the device, which can deliver high depth-of-fire at the speed of light. Naval commanders want to use it for shooting down remotely-controlled drones, or repelling small attack craft that could be used by terrorists, pirates, or the Iranian military.
US Navy/Daniel M. Young
Previous tests have seen the $40 million weapon ignite remote-controlled targets in mid air, sending them crashing to the ground.
Since late August, the laser weapon system (LaWS) has been tested several times. The Navy says it's performing as expected. The system is likely to be tested for a total period of 12 months.
Here's Jane's analysis:
The SSL-QRC on Ponce represents a first step towards the USN's long-term goal of deploying high-energy laser (HEL) weapons across its surface fleet as an adjunct to existing hard-kill weapons. In particular, the service is attracted by the low cost-per-shot capability to defeat a subset of inexpensive 'asymmetric' targets such as small UAVs and fast inshore attack craft.
ONR's follow-on SSL-TM programme is intended to demonstrate a 100-150 kW Advanced Development Model by 2016, to determine the most effective means to integrate a HEL on surface ships such as DDG 51 vessels and the Littoral Combat Ship, and to address various technical challenges so as to bring technology up to a sufficient level of maturity to commence an acquisition programme of record.
Three industry teams - led by Northrop Grumman, BAE Systems, and Raytheon - have been selected to develop SSL-TM designs. ONR will in 2015 decide which of these are suitable for demonstration at sea.
The A/N SEQ-3(XN-1) Solid State Laser-Quick Reaction Capability system's beam director and tracking mount undergoing tests before deployment on USS Ponce. (U.S. Navy photo by John Joyce).