All right, the US Navy’s latest experimental weapons system isn’t attached to sharks, but it’s still pretty frickin’ cool. The prosaically named Laser Weapons System (LaWS — no “frickin'”) got a public rollout yesterday with a video released by the Pentagon demonstrating the power of its fully operational Death Star — er, surface attack system. Not only is it frickin’ cool, it’s also relatively frickin’ inexpensive:
The weapon is being billed as a step toward transforming warfare. Since it runs on electricity, it can fire as long as there is power at a cost of less than $1 dollar per shot.
“Compare that to the hundreds of thousands of dollars it costs to fire a missile, and you can begin to see the merits of this capability,” Chief of Naval Research Rear Admiral Matthew Klunder, said in a statement.
The prototype, which one official said cost between $31 million and $32 million to make, will be installed aboard the USS Ponce, which is being used as a floating base in the Middle East, sometime in fiscal year 2014, which begins in October.
At $32 million an installation — a price that will come down as mass production ramps up — that’s probably one of the less expensive weapons systems we’ve developed in recent years, too. The system isn’t perfect, or even widely applicable, though. Its lower-power laser will only work against light construction, and may have issues in inclement weather. However, as Wired’s Spencer Ackerman points out, it is ideally suited for one particular theater of potential frickin’ conflict:
It just so happens that the LaWS’s ability to track and kill surveillance drones and swarming fast boats matches with Iran’s development of surveillance drones and swarming fast-boat tactics. And it just so happens that the Ponce will spend most of 2014 deployed in Iran’s backyard. …
A lot about that cost figure depends on successful integration aboard a ship’s deck; successfully drawing from a ship’s power without compromising the propulsion systems; and the cost of fuel per shot. And it also factors out the cost of the weapon itself. But if it turns out to be genuine, the Navy will have developed the rare high-end weapons system that undercuts the cost of adversary weapons.
The big concern in surface warfare is that anti-ship missiles are way cheaper than ships. The Navy can’t make ships cheaper. (Let’s be real.) But it might be able to develop a countermeasure to those anti-ship weapons cheaper than those weapons themselves. As the Navy sees it, that’s the ultimate promise of laser guns: A weapon that undercuts the increasing cheapness and availability of powerful missiles and robots. It’s by no means certain that the Navy can realize the promise. But it’s now fully committed to trying.
The Iranian strategy was to defeat massive power with nimble speed and numbers. The LaWS system responds to that threat with inexpensive yet effective weapons systems that can complement existing countermeasures. If nothing else, it shows that the Pentagon has thought outside the box about this particular theater of operations, and not just in regard to Iran. The lesson of the USS Cole was that small craft can exploit slow defense responses and a reluctance to engage with heavy weapons on an unknown threat. The laser cannon also provides a good alternative to lower-scale terrorist and pirate attacks. And if this system is successful in its deployments, we probably can expect higher-power versions of LaWS to enhance or replace more expensive weapons systems on surface ships, and perhaps other craft as well.