WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A laser weapon deployed aboard the USS Ponce in the Gulf has performed beyond expectations in four months of operational testing, the chief of Navy research said on Wednesday, lifting hopes for a new U.S. defense against cheap anti-ship arms.
Rear Admiral Matthew Klunder, head of the Office of Naval Research, said the $40 million laser weapon was fully integrated into systems aboard the USS Ponce at the end of the summer for a year of testing.
“This is the first time in recorded history that a directed energy weapons system has ever deployed on anything,” he said.
New video of the 30-kilowatt laser showed it dazzling a small aerial drone in two seconds, frying its electronics and sending it plummeting into the sea before it had time to catch fire.
Another showed it targeting a hard-to-see rocket-propelled grenade aboard a small, distant attack boat, causing the device to detonate and send a spray of shrapnel across the water.
“We’re not testing it any more. This is operational. It’s on a ship in the Persian Gulf,” Klunder said. “This isn’t something we’ve got in a box we’re saving for ... a special moment. They’re using it every single day.”
The deployment of the weapon comes as the Pentagon is concerned about losing the technological edge that has enabled it to rapidly overcome rivals on the battlefield for decades.
Many countries are developing precision munitions, long-range missiles and other systems to counter U.S. superiority. China, Iran and other nations have developed accurate anti-ship missiles to force the U.S. Navy to operate further from their shores.
The Navy laser lifts hopes for a more powerful 100-150 kw system able to deliver a jolt of energy that could destroy a multimillion-dollar missile for about a dollar, giving the U.S. military an asymmetric edge in countering anti-ship threats.
The more powerful laser is under development and expected to be deployed on a ship by 2017, Klunder said, adding that if effective, it could be widely produced and deployed on ships.
While the current laser aboard the Ponce has not yet engaged an actual threat to the vessel, it has been tested against the kind of targets it is expected to counter.
“That’s all worked well. As a matter of fact, we’ve never missed,” Klunder said. “If we have to defend that ship today, we will destroy a threat if it comes inbound.”
Reporting by David Alexander, editing by G Crosse