U.S. Navy May Toast Pirates With Lasers

U.S. Navy May Toast Pirates With Lasers

Apr 14


Associated Press
April 13, 2011

Original Link

NAIROBI, KENYA – A ship-based laser tested by the Navy’s research arm could put the heat on Somali pirates.

The Navy for the first time last week successfully tested a solid-state high-energy laser from a ship. The beam, which was aimed at a boat moving through turbulent Pacific Ocean waters, set the target’s engine on fire.

The Office of Naval Research says the laser traveled over “miles, not yards.” For now, the test is a proof of concept, and it’s not yet known when it might be deployed as a weapon.

The baseball-sized laser beam, though, could be used to stop small crafts from approaching naval ships. It could also target pirates.

“You can use the laser to ward off an attack, or you can dial it down to a non-lethal level where it basically becomes a very bright light so they know they are being targeted,” Michael Deitchman, the director of air warfare and weapons at the Office of Naval Research, said Wednesday.

Deitchman said the laser provides two benefits not seen in other military weapons. The laser is precise, unlike bullets that can ricochet and hit unintended targets, and the laser’s strength can be dialed down from a lethal level to a nuisance level.

Graeme Gibbon-Brooks, the head of Dryad Maritime Intelligence, said the test was “remarkable” for how the Navy was able to concentrate the beam over such a long distance at sea, and given how the boat was being tossed about in rough water.

“Hats off to the U.S. Navy because that is very, very impressive,” he said. “It was pitching and rolling and yet they got this very fine beam to focus on one part of an engine casing. That they managed to keep the energy in one place is remarkable.”

Somali pirates attacks have become increasingly violent in recent months. Pirate assaults typically involve multiple skiffs zooming in on a target. The pirates often carry and fire AK-47 assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades at targets.

Some cargo ships now carry private security guards to defend against pirates. They also can use such defensive measures as water cannons and sound blasters. But those measures may not be enough to overcome an armed attack.

Gibbon-Brooks said the new laser “absolutely” could be deployed against pirates, but says a sniper rifle could work just as well. He suspects the Navy has bigger hopes for its sea-based laser.

The Navy released a video of the test on YouTube (see below). It’s been viewed more than 600,000 times.

“It’s a very, very interesting moment for naval warfare in that we have a whole new genre of weapons,” he said.

“It’s certainly a remarkable step forward. The ability to apply more power in a burst or the ability to manipulate that power is really where I see this going,” he said. “I think if you watch the video and think that’s what they intend to do to Somali pirates in a year, you don’t understand what’s being set out in front of them. It could be used in any type of naval warfare.”

The laser test was carried out by the Navy and Northrop Grumman as part of a $98 million contract.

The Office of Naval Research’s big project is a megawatt-level electron laser that could be used to defend Naval ships against supersonic and ballistic missiles, said Deitchman. The recent laser test helps the Navy move in that direction.

“It demonstrated once and for all that we could get material damage effects with a laser at sea, and it really gives us confidence to proceed on with directed energy systems,” Deitchman said.





With clouds overhead in the salty air, irritable Pacific waves swelled to up to four feet. Perfect conditions, in other words, for the Navy to fry a small boat with a laser beam — a major step toward its futuristic arsenal of ray guns.

Researchers mounted the Maritime Laser Demonstrator, a solid-state laser, aboard the USS Paul Foster, a decommissioned destroyer. Off the central California coast near San Nicholas Island on Wednesday, the laser fired a 15-kilowatt beam at an inflatable motorboat a mile away as both ships moved through the sea. As the above video shows, there was a flash on the boat’s outboard engines, igniting both of them in seconds, and leaving the ship dead in the choppy waters.

All previous tests of the laser have come on land — steady, steady land — aside from an October test of the targeting systems. But for the first time, the Office of Naval Research has proven that its laser can operate in a “no-kidding maritime environment,” says its proud director, Rear Adm. Nevin Carr.

“I spent my life at sea,” Carr says in an interview with Danger Room, “and I never thought we’d see this kind of progress this quickly, where we’re approaching a decision of when we can put laser weapons on ships.”

Fewer than three years after the Navy awarded Northrop Grumman a contract worth up to $98 million to build the Maritime Laser Demonstrator, it’s proven able to cause “catastrophic failure” on a moving target at sea the first time out, says Quentin Saulter, one of ONR’s top laser gurus.

“When we were doing the shot and the engine went, there was elation in the control room,” he says. “It’s a big step, a proof of principle for directed energy weapons.”

The Navy hopes that by the next decade, solid state lasers — which generate powerful beams of light by running electrons through crystals or glass — will be aboard its surface ships, disabling enemy vessels and eventually burning incoming missiles out of the sky. That latter goal will take at least 100 kilowatts of power.

But a beam in the tens of kilowatts, ONR proved this week, is deadly, accurate and, Carr says, “can be operated in existing power levels and cooling levels on ships today.”

Solid state lasers are just the beginning. The Navy’s also working on a much more powerful Free Electron Laser weapon thanks to ONR’s research. That laser works across multiple wavelengths, compensating for debris in the sea air, to cut through 2,000 feet of steel per second once it gets up to megawatt class. Its electron injectors are ahead of schedule and ONR expects it to be ready in the 2020s, though after its solid state cousins are operative.

Next up will be to “develop the tactics, the techniques, the procedures and the safety procedures that sailors are going need to develop” to wield laser weapons, Carr says. And then it’s time to scale up the laser’s power.

“This is an important data point,” the admiral says, “but I still want the Megawatt death ray.”


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