The Royal Navy may be losing its anti-ship missiles next year, but it does plan to give its warships a new way to defend against the enemy's ordnance. The Ministry of Defense says that it has given an industry consortium two years and $37 million to design, build and test a laser directed energy weapon at sea and on land. The weapon is intended to down or disrupt drones, missiles, fast attack boats and incoming mortar rounds with a high-power laser beam.
The U.S. Navy already has a laser weapon fitted to the support ship USS Ponce in the Gulf, and the American system has shot down a drone, set fast attack craft on fire and ‘blinded’ sensors and instruments. The Ponce's XN-1 LaWS laser was installed in 2014, and testing impressed the Navy enough that it has declared it operational for defensive purposes.
LaWS cost about $40 million to design and build, and in late 2015, the U.S. Navy's Office of Naval Research said that it would spend an additional $50-90 million on a second-generation, 150-kW laser from Northrop Grumman. It would be roughly five times as powerful as LaWS thanks to improved fiber laser technologies, and would offer an extended effective range.
Laser weapons have long attracted military planners with the promise of instant line-of-sight strikes, low costs per round and a near-limitless number of shots. The Navy tested chemical laser systems in the 1980s, notably the megawatt-plus MIRACL deuterium fluoride laser, but abandoned them due to the hazards of carrying their fuel on board. The renewed interest in energy weapons reflects recent technological improvements in fiber lasers, which are much more efficient in converting electrical power into light than older crystal solid state lasers.
"For about the price of a gallon of diesel fuel per shot, we're offering the Navy a high-precision defensive approach that will protect not only its sailors, but also its wallet,” said Guy Renard, energy weapons program manager for Northrop Grumman.