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Destroyer and cruisers would likely see the high-tech laser weapons, like this one developed by the Office of Naval Research, first. (John F. Williams / Navy)
Soon, the sound of combat may not be a thunderous boom but an electronic zap. The Office of Naval Research is in the early stages of putting a solid-state laser weapon onto a ship. If the project succeeds, it effectively will make all the sci-fi clichés about lasers — from death rays to "set phasers to stun" — a reality.
It means surface ships will have a new weapon that doesn't require any space in the magazine, can rapidly target different enemies and costs about $1 per shot to use — less than the cost of a .50-caliber round.
The idea is that lasers will operate alongside traditional kinetic weapons on surface ships but will give skippers a new option for handling threats from small unmanned and unmanned aircraft, cruise missiles, fast attack boats and swarming surface vessels — "all weapons we may have to face in the Persian Gulf one day," said Mark Gunzinger, co-author of a report on laser weapons for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington think tank.
Contractors have developed laser weapons before, but now the Navy wants to test that technology on a ship in four years. Which surface vessel will be first to host the new technology is not certain, but the Office of Naval Research is anticipating it eventually will go on cruisers and destroyers. Aircraft could also have laser weapons, but that technology isn't as developed.
For now, neither ONR nor experts are suggesting lasers should entirely replace kinetic weapons. Rather, they see them as an option to repel threats in some situations. For example, a laser could have been a good option for preventing the suicide boat bombing of the destroyer Cole in October 2000.
Roger McGinnis, an innovative naval prototype executive with ONR, said it's difficult to deter attacks like the one on Cole with kinetic weapons because there's a risk of an errant shot hitting an unintended target, or fragments created by a successful shot creating collateral damage. A laser would allow the skipper to "dial up" the weapon's power to an appropriate level to counter the specific threat.
Beyond bringing a new capability, there are other advantages to lasers, said Peter Morrison, a program officer for ONR's solid-state laser office. For one, unlike their kinetic weapon counterparts, lasers run on electricity and do not need a below-deck magazine to store ammunition, a factor that could trim shipbuilding costs because ammo storage is heavily protected to prevent catastrophic chain reactions.
"With this laser, we don't have to worry about this high explosive," he said.
Less storage space would mean more room for offensive weapons, Gunzinger said.
Besides the attack capability, the laser system comes with one feature that McGinnis and Morrison think has an everyday application: high-end optics. To hit a distant target, the laser needs an optics system to visually identify the threat and aim precisely. Such a capability could also be used to identify a far-off target. It's similar to using the scope on a sniper rifle to spot something in the distance, but with no intention to take a shot.
Additionally, laser attacks are expected to be cheaper than a kinetic attack. Lasers run off of electricity which is generated from the ship's fuel. Morrison said the typical laser shot could require around a gallon of fuel per shot for a 100-kilowatt system.
But there are limits. For one, lasers have difficulty operating in bad weather because thick haze or fog could dissipate and weaken a shot it before it hits a target. Additionally, it will be at least a decade before aircraft can be armed with a laser, and most likely the weapon load-out will include a podlike system, Gunzinger said.
Many of the details are still being figured out. ONR is working with Naval Sea Systems Command to determine how many lasers should go on a ship and where they should be located to provide 360-degree coverage. Researchers are also evaluating the technical aspects, such as the maximum amount of power a laser could use, how the ship's energy system can power the weapon, and the intricacies of the cooling system that would allow the laser to fire several shots in succession.