Ship part

Watch a US Navy ship test a laser weapon at sea

A sustained flash of light produces a fire, then a wreckage. This month, the US Navy continued its laser weapon testing from the deck of the USS Portland, destroying a target floating on the surface of the Gulf of Aden. These laser demonstrations are part of a larger modernization effort, with the US Navy testing new and varied tools in the waters around the Middle East.

The test took place on December 14. It was preceded by tests in the Pacific in May 2020, in which the Portland used the same laser weapon to destroy a target drone. Both demonstrations are part of the Navy to determine how, exactly, its larger ships can protect themselves from smaller, cheaper threats.

To better understand modern directed energy weapons, it’s important to take a step back from the sci-fi idea of ​​a laser weapon. High power light beams are expensive to develop and deploy, but they offer some kind of economy once they’re up and running. Provided a ship can generate the necessary electrical energy, a laser is, blow for blow or threat for threat, a cheaper mechanism than anti-aircraft missiles or potentially even .50 caliber bullets to destroy incoming attacks. .

If the threats the Navy wants to defeat are cheap, like the Qasef-1 drones, then what the Navy needs to deploy is a countermeasure that’s also cheap to use.

Drones, especially floating munitions that fly like drones but attack like missiles, are a lasting and growing threat in modern warfare. Some of the fighting groups in Yemen have used non-reusable drones as missiles in large-scale attacks, and many modern air defenses, like anti-aircraft missiles, are at best ineffective against drones, and sometimes even incapable of detect and intercept drone attacks.

[Related: The US Navy is testing autonomous seafaring robots that patrol the ocean]

A laser does not solve the detection part of the threat, but it does offer commanders a cheaper alternative than firing a missile at a drone. If the laser can pass through an attacking drone fast enough, then it can be rotated to face another target, and by spending only the generated electrical energy, it can protect a ship from a multitude of attacks.

“You can do anything in the world to figure out how you think laser weapons are going to be used, but you put that controller in the hands of a sailor who is going to play with it and do what he does with the operational interface,” and then they’re going to decide to use it in a way we can’t imagine, ”Frank Peterkin, Navy Senior Technologist for Directed Energy, told USNI News in 2019, after the announcement of the selection of the USS Portland for the weapon.

The USS Portland is an amphibious transport dock, capable of disembarking 700 Marines by dedicated landing craft, as well as helicopters and V-22 Ospreys. It’s the kind of ship that will need to come close to danger, with a small set of on-board weapons to ensure its survival to this point and beyond.

Placing a laser weapon on the Portland gives it additional options against any threats it may encounter, such as drones or attempts to attack it with small boats. The most infamous example of this threat occurred in October 2000; While moored in the port of Aden in Yemen, the destroyer USS Cole was attacked by suicide bombers in a small boat. The attack killed both bombers and 17 sailors, and injured 37 others on board the ship.

[Related: America’s Laser Gun Goes To War]

When the US Navy tested a laser weapon in 2014, on the USS Ponce, it used it to destroy the engine of a small motorboat, the kind of use that could protect a ship from attackers using inexpensive means of trying to stop a ship before it does. reached the shore. The Ponce laser was 30 kw. As designed, the laser onboard the Portland is at 150 kW, allowing it to pass through targets faster and thus disable more threats to the ship.

This laser demonstration aboard the Portland follows a pattern of Navy robot demonstrations in the Gulf of Aden and Persian Gulf. Whatever danger the Navy anticipates in the future, it is now regularly exploring how new technology in the seas adjacent to the Arabian Peninsula can help it.

Watch a video of the Portland firing its laser below: