"The future is here," the U.S. Office of Naval Research's Peter Morrison said Monday, as the Navy unveiled a solid-state laser cannon that can disable or destroy surveillance drones and small, rapidly moving gunships.
"The Navy has been testing its boringly named Laser Weapons System (LaWS) for a few years now, and this isn't the first time it has ever blown something out of the sky," says Eric Limer at Gizmodo. But as the video above demonstrates, "it is the most spectacular look we've gotten yet" of the Navy's laser dreams in action.
Laser cannons may still seem like something out of science fiction, but they "are definitely the future of war," says Limer, "as are drones." And it "looks like in the rock-paper-scissors game of modern combat, laser beats drone." We should find out soon enough. The Navy announced that the LaWS is being sent out aboard the USS Ponce for a real-life field test in the Persian Gulf in fiscal 2014, which starts in October. "Pew pew pew." Lasers: "This is the future of warfare. And it's so, so cool."
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Before anyone gets too excited, though, let's remember that "the Pentagon has a long history of grossly inflating claims for its experimental weapons," says Thom Shanker in The New York Times. This time, their claims are bolstered by a new report from the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, which found that lasers on ships could bring about "a technological shift for the Navy — a 'game changer' — comparable to the advent of shipboard missiles in the 1950s." But at the same time, the current class of laser weaponry has its drawbacks.
To take down a jet or missile, a laser beam would have to be at least 100 kilowatts, the strength "generally considered militarily mature," says Spencer Ackerman at Wired. At a megawatt of power, a laser "can burn through 20 feet of steel in a second." The current LaWS cannon — which generates its own power — falls far short of that, but it's evidently strong enough to punch through "an adversary's cheap anti-ship weapons," like drones and swarming fast boats. In fact:
That's one of the reasons the Navy is trotting out the LaWS now — it won't put it this way, but the laser cannon "has immediate implications for the U.S.' ongoing sub rosa conflict with the Iranians," Ackerman says. In this era of Pentagon belt-tightening, the Navy's bigger selling point for the dawn of "the age of the laser weapons is financial." The LaWS prototype cost just under $32 million to make, and more importantly, the Navy says the limitless supply of sustained laser bursts will cost less than $1 each, versus at least $5,000 per conventional shell or missile. (Each current short-range interceptor missile costs $1.4 million.)
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