Navy encouraged by performance of laser system on USS Ponce
MANAMA, Bahrain — The U.S. Navy is one step closer to outfitting ships with lasers that officials say can hit air and surface targets with precision.
Although it’s still in the testing phase, Navy personnel and officials — from the operator directing the laser beam to the chief of naval operations — are excited about what the laser weapon system can do.
The laser weapon system, known as LaWS, was installed during the summer on the 43-year-old USS Ponce — an afloat forward staging base deployed to the U.S. 5th Fleet — to evaluate how the system handles a rugged maritime environment.
The laser is a directed-energy weapon that can target both air and surface targets — either with lethal or nonlethal force, depending on the power setting. Over the years, researchers have made significant improvements to the weapon’s ruggedness, power and beam quality, and range.
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert said the weapon could be a game changer.
“Imagine you take this... you double or triple the power on this, you’re going from a close-in weapon system, to cruise-missile-like weapons system, to ballistic-defense-type weapon system,” Greenert told Stars and Stripes after visiting the Ponce and seeing the laser firsthand.
The Ponce provided a test platform to see how well the laser could hit targets from a moving platform subject to unstable conditions at sea.
Officials were pleased with the initial testing of the system.
“For the most part, each event went as planned or better than planned,” said Capt. Dale Maxey, who was the commanding officer of the Ponce during the installation and testing. The crew fired at mock-up surface and air targets. “It proved to be very effective against UAVs,” Maxey said, referring to unmanned aerial vehicles.
The laser can blind sensors, target electronics, or destroy a target with precision. For example, officials said, to destroy a target, the laser can be fired at its fuel tank.
But officials say one of most useful features doesn’t involve firing the laser at all. The system can track targets at a greater distance than other shipboard equipment — including at night.
“It’s great as far as determining what a contact is doing,” said Lt. j.g. Katie Woodard, the officer in charge of the laser weapon system aboard the Ponce. “We have a great optic system on there.”
“It gives us more time to deal with contacts,” she said, referring to any object that may be approaching the ship from the air or water.
Lt. Kristofer Kalstad supervised the initial use of the weapon aboard the ship.
“This brings so much more to the table than just a weapon system, defensive or otherwise,” he said.
The laser is operated by a single person from a station inside the ship’s combat information center.
“The operator requires skill. It’s not as automated as some systems, because it’s early on,” Maxey said. An operator can move and fire the laser using a hand controller similar to ones used with popular gaming consoles. “There is an art to the operator,” Maxey said.
While the laser was briefly tested two years ago on the guided-missile destroyer USS Dewey in San Diego, the Ponce is the first deployed ship to include it in its arsenal. The sailors who work with the laser aboard the Ponce are charged with developing procedures for its use and maintenance at sea.
“We put it out here specifically to learn additional things, to test tactics, to find out how the environment affects it.” Maxey said.
Kalstad said the system has “exceeded expectations.” Its ability to perform in a harsh maritime environment of sea spray, dust and sand has diminished some of the “very serious concerns” that existed before the installation.
Maxey said the laser gives the ship a “superb defensive depth” that allowed him to sleep better at night. The Ponce’s defensive arsenal includes Phalanx close-in weapon system gun mounts and the 25-mm machine gun system. Maxey said that the laser doesn’t replace those weapons but that it’s an “excellent addition.”
Officials said a single laser shot costs about $1 in energy costs — compared to the high expense of using projectile weapons. The laser isn’t cheap, though: It cost about $40 million to develop.
The U.S. Navy won’t be installing its new laser weapon system on ships throughout the fleet any time soon, despite the initial success aboard the Ponce. The system is still in the experimental phase, and testing on the Ponce will continue for an undetermined period.
In addition, the laser and its components — generators, coolers and various other components —require quite a bit of space.
“I would put a LaWS on every ship,” Greenert said, “if I could miniaturize it and fit it.”
By Hendrick Simoes
Article tiré de Star and Stripes (États-Unis)
Article relayé par A.L.