By Peter A. Morrison
Program Officer, Office of Naval Research Solid-State Laser Technology Maturation Program
We all know the old saying about the unfortunate soul who brought a knife to the gunfight. In the not-too-distant future, we should be able to say we bested our adversaries because we had lasers, and they showed up with only a gun.
In fiscal year 2014, the Navy will put a solid-state laser gun aboard USS Ponce in the Persian Gulf. The tests we run with this weapon will help us develop a prototype system that can be tailored to many surface combatant classes.
Watch a demonstration of the high-energy laser aboard a moving surface combatant ship and against remotely piloted aircraft
It’s impossible to overstate the significance of this milestone and our continued research into directed energy. I’ve been working with weapon systems for 30 years, and this capability is poised to change the face of modern warfare.
As Navy leaders have said, we never want to see a Sailor or Marine in a fair fight. We always want them to have the advantage.
This new kind of weapon will give our warfighters options like no other system before. I like to use the “five Ds” when describing its myriad of capabilities: deter, disable, damage, defeat and destroy. The solid-state laser can vary the power and accomplish each of these, independently or sequentially.
The same weapon that can be used to identify and then issue a non-lethal warning to an approaching unmanned air vehicle can then set a drone ablaze and send it crashing to the ground. With lasers, our aim becomes more precise, and we can engage at the speed of light.
This goes beyond “fire and forget.” This is all about “knowing before you fire, knowing as you are firing, and then knowing and having evidence that you were effective in your last shot.”
We’ve already successfully test-fired on unmanned aircraft and small boats. Additional target sets will follow.
And the best part of this story? It costs less than $1 to take a shot with a laser, and it doesn’t require our Sailors to load ships up with hazardous materials such as propellants and explosives.
You need two things to operate a laser: electricity and cooling. We can get the electricity from the ship’s power system and use available chilled water to cool it. With ample supply of both, we have a virtual bottomless magazine.
It’s cheap, it’s safe, it’s the future . . . and the future is here.
On a personal note, I have directed energy to thank for my life. I suffered from atrial fibrillation, more commonly known as an irregular heartbeat. Doctors used a directed energy to cut through harmful nerves behind my heart and get it back into rhythm. I am walking proof that directed energy saves lives in more ways than one.
The Office of Naval Research is proud to have contributed to this cutting-edge technology, and we’re grateful to our research partners at Naval Sea Systems Command, Naval Air Systems Command, the Secretary of Defense’s High Energy Laser Joint Technology Office and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, among others.
But most important, we’re confident of the solid-state laser’s ability to help our Sailors and Marines complete their missions more effectively and efficiently than ever before.