Navy Wants High-Powered Laser for Fending Off Small Boats

Hands Up, Pirates!

The Navy's prototype laser could help counter small boat threats such as these suspected pirates, who were detained by the guided-missile cruiser USS Vella Gulf in February 2009.U.S. Navy

There's no fricking laser beams attached to sharks, but Dr. Evil might still be jealous. The U.S. Navy wants to test a high-powered laser against the threat of small boats or even jet skis carrying RPG-wielding riders.

Northrop Grumman came away with the $98-million contract for the Maritime Laser Demonstration (MLD) in early July. Next up: installing a prototype of the laser on a ship and testing it on a remote-controlled small boat within the next 18 months.

This may sound like overkill, but the Navy's excitement over the weapon comes from its "graduated response" capability. The same laser can first identify potentially threatening watercraft, and then use illumination to warn the intruder away from Navy warships. As a last resort, the laser can dial up to high-power mode and strike either the craft's motor or hull.

Such small craft have already proven a threat during the 2000 suicide attack on the USS Cole. Hostile groups such as Somali pirates also commonly prey on shipping by using fast-attack boats, despite a wide variety of low and high tech tactics being used against them.

MLD has already achieved an output of 105 kw during early testing, but there's a ways to go before it's ready for sea trials. Northrop Grumman told Aviation Week's DTI that aerosolized ocean spray and other factors could scatter the solid-state laser beam.

Still, the U.S. Air Force has its flying laser cannon, and the Army also wants to deploy a defensive laser. So perhaps it was inevitable that the Navy would want to give the futuristic weapon a try.