Video: New Navy laser can shoot down drones, is headed for the Persian Gulf


A still of a burning drone from a video of the Navy's laser weapon system demonstrations. (U.S. Navy/Youtube)

The Web and the defense community are abuzz over a video of the U.S. Navy’s new laser weapon system (LaWs), which shows a destroyer-mounted laser dramatically shooting a drone out of the sky.

This type of laser, which Admiral Jonathan Greenert debuted during the Navy’s annual conference in D.C. today, has been heralded by a congressional report as a “game changer ... comparable to the advent of shipboard missiles in the 1950s.” Per the Navy’s Office of Information, it is hoped that the system will work especially well against small boats and aerial targets. The technology also has big cost implications, Bloomberg reports: Each shot is estimated to cost about $1, versus the much higher price tag for individual missiles.

But the most interesting thing about the new system might be its next port of call. Next year, the system is headed for the Persian Gulf with the USS Ponce, a transport ship recently retrofitted as a staging base. And as Spencer Ackerman points out at Wired, that proximity to Iran doesn’t seem like coincidence:

It just so happens that the LaWS’ ability to track and kill surveillance drones and swarming fast boats matches with Iran’s development of surveillance drones and swarming fast-boat tactics ... Neither Klunder nor Eccles will come out and say it exactly, but the maiden deployment of the LaWS has immediate implications for the U.S.’ ongoing sub rosa conflict with the Iranians.

In January 2012, Gen. Ataollah Salehi demanded that a U.S. carrier and its accompanying ships stay out of the Gulf or risk unspoken consequences. After the U.S. refused — the Navy has committed to keeping the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf open, and operates a major base in Bahrain — Iran beefed up its retaliation capabilities, adding more accurate short-range missiles, honing its “swarm” operations with armed patrol boats and vowing reprisals for any strike on the country’s nuclear facilities.

The latest provocation came last November, when Iran shot down an unarmed U.S. drone over the Persian Gulf.

In light of those incidents, it’s hard to see the laser system — and its accompanying media fanfare — as anything but a tacit warning. Especially when you have Rear Adm. Thomas Eccles, a top Navy engineer, saying things like this:

Any country that operates the kinds of threats this system is designed to deal with should pause and say, ‘If the United States Navy can take a challenge like that and muster the scientific expertise ... and go from a test environment directly to a forward-deployed unit for demonstration in the field and in the Fifth Fleet,’ they should recognize that when we say ‘quick-reaction capability’ we truly deliver on a quick reaction capability.

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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Max Fisher · April 9, 2013