The US has successfully deployed and operated its new laser weapon system (LaWS) for the first time aboard a naval vessel in the Persian Gulf, according to officials at the country's Office of Naval Research (ONR).
During the tests, which took place from September to November aboard the USS Ponce, LaWS hit targets mounted aboard a small, speeding, oncoming boat, shot a Scan Eagle unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) out of the sky, and destroyed other moving targets at sea.
The system is operated by a video-game like controller, and can address multiple threats using a range of escalating options, from non-lethal measures such as optical “dazzling” and disabling, to lethal destruction if necessary, including in adverse weather conditions such as high winds, heat and humidity.
ONR researchers have also suggested the technology could be used in airborne and ground-based settings.
“Laser weapons are powerful, affordable and will play a vital role in the future of naval combat operations,” said Rear Adm. Matthew L. Klunder, chief of naval research. “We ran this particular weapon, a prototype, through some extremely tough paces, and it locked on and destroyed the targets we designated with near-instantaneous lethality.”
The ONR added that lasers cost less to build, install and fire than traditional kinetic weapons, like multimillion-dollar missiles, and are not dependent on the traditional propellant and gunpowder-based ordnance found on ships as they run on electricity and can be fired as long as there is power.
“At less than a dollar per shot, there's no question about the value LaWS provides,” said Klunder. “With affordability a serious concern for our defence budgets, this will more effectively manage resources to ensure our Sailors and Marines are never in a fair fight.”
Others, meanwhile, reserved judgement until the weapon's competency in warfare is proven.
"I would be surprised if it actually becomes a useful weapon in the next 50 years," Rebecca Slayton, a professor at Cornell University's Department of Science & Technology, told NBC News.