Iran continues to develop an expanding fleet of homemade unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Tehran announced its latest “suicide drone” on the heels of a massive military exercise last month. But a new, high-tech weapon developed by the United States Navy — one that can swat drones from the sky — could render Iran’s new aerial threat obsolete.
Aboard the USS Ponce, which is permanently stationed in the Persian Gulf, the Navy deployed its first working laser weapon system, or LaWS, as the Navy calls it. The system is right out of a science fiction film. Unlike previous lasers used by modern militaries, this 30-kilowatt direct-energy can do more than just paint targets for precision-guided missiles and bombs. It can disable them.
Many of the Navy’s large warships are designed to fight other big vessels out at sea, but unprepared for agile maritime threats close to shore. Their expensive guided missiles and guns are meant to engage conventional aircraft and ships over long ranges, but have trouble targeting small boats and UAVs at close range. The few weapons they carry to address “close-in” threats can be overwhelmed by swarms of small enemy craft.
That vulnerability is why terrorist attacks like al-Qaeda’s 2000 bombing of the USS Cole pose a constant threat to sailors navigating the region. It is also why Iran, which lacks the ability to confront larger, more modern navies directly, has worked hard to develop its maritime asymmetric capabilities. Tehran has acquired shore- and sea-based anti-ship missiles (principally from China), small speedboats, and midget submarines to overwhelm advanced warships operating in the Gulf.
That’s where LaWS comes in. The system was designed for the myriad asymmetric threats in the narrow and congested waters of the Persian Gulf – the laser can aim precisely at a small object and disable its guidance system, motor, or other vital components. In testing, the prototype laser aboard the Ponce demonstrated this ability, neutralizing surface targets and downing a small UAV. It’s also worth noting that the laser can be deployed at a fraction of the cost of guided missiles and bullets, and fire infinitely more times.
LaWS will enhance a number of tools the U.S. military has at its disposal to respond to asymmetric threats in the Persian Gulf, including U.S. Army Apache attack helicopters, which can now be deployed from Navy carriers and amphibious assault ships. The Navy has also deployed its own small boats to the region, ranging from Cyclone-class patrol ships to riverine squadrons with their heavily armed speedboats. Additionally, the Navy has developed two classes of the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) to fight in shallow coastal environments like the Gulf. These will be increasingly effective when combined with LaWS, which can track targets at greater ranges.
In the future, as the technology develops, more powerful lasers may protect ships or entire areas from incoming cruise missiles, artillery shells, mortars, manned aircraft, and ballistic missiles. Land-based versions are also under development with the U.S. Army and the Israel Defense Forces to replace expensive missile-defense systems like Iron Dome.
The deployment and test-run of LaWS represents a major step forward in defensive systems. As direct-energy lasers develop, they will be able to confront low-tier asymmetric threats, like those from Iran, as well as used to maintain America’s superiority over well-equipped adversaries, like China and Russia. LaWS is just the start to a new era of warfare, in which defensive weapons gain an edge over their offensive counterparts.
Patrick Megahan is a research analyst at Foundation for Defense of Democracies focusing on military affairs. He manages the website militaryedge.org.