This news hits the world media headlines. US Navy has started life-tests of the world's first drone-killing laser reported to move at the speed of light and to be 'more precise than a bullet'. Laser weapons project a coherent ray of directed photons (light) that strike their target virtually instantaneously. The massive amount of energy released from the weapon was able to down the drone by setting its wing on fire. The speed – 50,000 times the speed of an incoming intercontinental ballistic missile – makes it unnecessary to lead the target.
Silent and generally invisible, as it usually operates at an optical wavelength indiscernible to the human eye, the Laser Weapons System (LaWS) runs off its own electrical generator and needs no ammunition. Highly accurate, it is very effective when used against small, speedy targets, including incoming rockets, small drones and artillery shells. Low maintenance, high safety, and long lifespan are desirable characteristics.
The cost is «about a dollar a shot». Intended primarily to disable or destroy aircraft and small boats, the 30-kilowatt laser weapon is currently onboard the USS Ponce deployed in the Persian Gulf. It is predicted to be combat ready by 2020. A full-power hundred-kilowatt Free Electron Laser is slated for testing in 2018, and might see use on the Navy’s new Zumwalt-class stealth destroyers. The Navy plans to create 150 kilowatts lasers in more distant future.
To believe what the media say – the US has made a great stride ahead to acquire a superweapon, giving it a critical advantage over any potential enemy in the world. No doubt, the ongoing tests testify to the fact that the US Navy has achieved some progress in developing small-size laser systems capable of striking small targets at limited ranges. This is a story of success but it also calls for an objective review.
There are limitations and shortcomings. Directed energy weapons are still in their relatively early days. The maximum range is limited as laser energy tends to diffuse in the atmosphere, especially when obstructed by sand, smoke or fog. Atmospheric absorption, scattering, and turbulence prevent shipboard lasers from being all weather weapons.
A laser beam has difficulty burning through denser materials. It needs time to inflict the damage and disable a heavy projectile. With no kinetic impact, a laser may fail to stop the target. In theory, laser weapons may be used for offensive missions, but the primary function is defensive. The LaWS has a very limited operational range – one to three km. It is no comparison to other combat systems. Lasers are no substitute for guns and missiles. They can add to the defensive capabilities but cannot be used as primary strike weapons.
The operator of a laser weapon must account for the movement of the target, the movement of the firing platform, decoys, dummies, or multiple war warheads that the enemy may use. Countermeasures to laser guidance also include laser detection systems, smoke screen and anti-laser active protection systems. Targets can be coated with materials that can absorb laser energy. Countering saturation attacks is also a problem.
Are laser weapons as low price as they are described for advertising purposes? But an infrared laser’s sophisticated optical guidance system and focusing lenses are not cheap. The weapon is fast but still a target must be designated, information processed and communicated to ensure accuracy. It is not done as immediately as media describe, it does take a few seconds. So, it is not exactly “the speed of light”. Besides, a laser weapons is installed on a platform vulnerable to precision-guided weapons.
There are some legal restrictions: the 1995 Protocol On Blinding Laser Weapons, a part of the United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons – forbids the use of “dazzler” lasers explicitly designed to permanently blind the eyesight of adversaries. It discourages the use of laser combat systems as anti-personnel weapons but it can be used against platforms – aircraft, armor vehicles and ships.
The LaWS is no game changer. It boasts no dominant role in modern warfare. Besides, with the current tests conducted with a thumb pressed firmly on the scale, the system has never seen combat. With all the limitations mentioned above, the weapon will not likely be ready for prime time anytime soon.