America’s Laser Gun Goes To War

Peeking out on the prow of the Ponce, pew pew pew!

140925-N-NI474-536 ARABIAN GULF (Sept. 25, 2014) The afloat forward staging base (interim) USS Ponce (AFSB(I) 15) transits the Arabian Gulf. Ponce is equipped with the Laser Weapon System (LaWS), a technology demonstrator built by Naval Sea Systems Command from commercial fiber solid-state lasers. The system utilizes combination methods developed at the Naval Research Laboratory to successfully shoot down a target. LaWS can be directed onto targets from the radar track obtained from an MK 15 Phalanx Close-In Weapon System or other targeting source. This capability provides ships with a method to easily defeat small boat threats and aerial targets without using bullets. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Daniel M. Young/Released) MC2 Daniel M. Young

Right now, the U.S. Navy has a warship with a laser gun patrolling the Persian Gulf. The USS Ponce is an old ship that first saw service as an amphibious transport in the 1970s, designed to carry troops, vehicles, and helicopters close to beaches. Saved from a scrapyard, the U.S. Navy strapped a laser to its back and sent it forward, turning it into a cold warrior testing the waters of the future.

Last week, the Navy released a photo, taken in September, of the USS Ponce traversing the Arabian Sea. On top of the ship, above the bridge and below a radar, sits the Laser Weapon System (LaWS). It’s an acronym that somehow makes an actual, working, military laser gun sound about as exciting as a government 101 homework assignment, but there it is. A laser, ready for combat.

Here’s that laser close up:

Detail of the Laser Weapon System (LaWS) on the USS Ponce. The laser gun is a white cylinder on top of a gray ship.

While laser weapons in fiction call to mind tremendous destructive powers, ranging from merely deadly blaster pistols to world-ending Death Star beams, the Ponce’s laser is a defensive weapon. Its primary targets will be small drones and small boats, and given enough time and enough power, the laser should burn through both easily. Previously tested on the USS Dewey, here’s what it looks like when a ship lasers a drone: