It may seem strange for an aging amphibious transport dock to be on this list, and indeed a week ago it would not have made the cut The 43-year-old USS Ponce, launched in July 1971, served for years as a transport for U.S. Marines. Now it’s an Afloat Forward Staging Base, and the first ship in the US Navy operationally armed with a laser weapon.
Wednesday, the U.S. Navy revealed that the Laser Weapon System, or LaWS is now an operational weapons system. The laser system is cleared to be fired in combat.
The laser system is designed to target unmanned aerial vehicles, slow moving helicopters, and fast patrol craft. In a video released by the Navy on YouTube, the laser detonates a RPG-7 anti-tank rocket, burned out the engine of a small boat, and shot down a small unmanned aerial vehicle. The process appears to take a fraction of a second.
The U.S. Navy claims that, per the Geneva Convention the laser will not be used to target individual humans. It’s safe to say, however, that detonating explosive devices, fuel, or causing catastrophic damage to a vehicle could have lethal consequences for the crew.
No details exist on the range of the LaWS, or how many shots it can fire in an engagement. The laser light does not appear visible to the naked eye. The system appears to be aimed by a shipboard operator using a modified video game controller.
In a world of high cost weapons systems, one of the most remarkable things about LaWS is the cost. LaWS costs only 69 cents per shot, with apparently only one shot needed to disable a small boat. The Griffin missile, which the U.S. Navy had also considered using against small boats, costs $99,000 each. RAM, the point defense system that might otherwise engage UAVs, costs well over $250,000 per missile. LaWS even compares favorably with the 20mm cannon round fired by the Phalanx Close-In Weapons System. While we don’t know how much the entire LaWS system actually costs, these per shot numbers are encouraging.
LaWS is a 30 kilowatt laser system. The U.S. Navy plans to test more powerful 100 to 150 kilowatt systems within the next two years.
Kyle Mizokami is a writer based in San Francisco who has appeared in The Diplomat, Foreign Policy, War is Boring and The Daily Beast. In 2009 he cofounded the defense and security blog Japan Security Watch. You can follow him on Twitter: @KyleMizokami.