Cyber & Technology

The Navy's Scary New Death Ray

By Benjamin Bissell
Monday, November 17, 2014, 12:15 PM

Got a problem with Iranian UAVs threatening your ships? Want to remotely start fires on small boats? The US Navy has just what you need: the 30 kilowatt-class Laser Weapon System (LaWS).

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="631"] (Source: US Navy photo by John F. Williams)[/caption]

Defense News reports that the US Navy debuted the system this past August on the USS Ponce, an amphibious transport ship currently based in the Persian Gulf. The laser has a bevy of different settings, ranging from a simple warning flash to a lethal beam that can set small boats and machines on fire. The weapon, whose range remains classified, focuses the light from six solid-state welding lasers onto a single target to cause damage. The current laser is an upgraded prototype of an earlier model and cost $40 million over 7 years to build. After passing several at-sea tests and starting service on the Ponce, the system will undergo further environmental tests. The Navy hopes to deploy the weapon fleet-wide by 2017.

While officials deny the weapon was made with one country specifically in mind, the LaWS’s unique abilities seem especially apt to counter the Iranian navy’s assets in the region. Faced with the United States’ overwhelming superiority in conventional naval warfare, Iran has built up its arsenal of naval mines and small vessels in the Strait of Hormuz, a vital artery of trade and energy flows. The LaWS is seen as an effective countermeasure to Tehran’s tactic of using the smaller, less expensive systems to “swarm” larger US and Western warships.

The use of lasers in military settings is the subject of a specific treaty, namely the Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons, to which the US has been a signatory since 2009. However, the protocol only prohibits “weapons specifically designed, as their sole combat function or as one of their combat functions, to cause permanent blindness to unenhanced vision;” it does not extend even to weapons that cause blindness “as an incidental or collateral effect.” Seeing as the LaWS presumably underwent legal review before deployment, it appears that while blinding someone is a no-go, setting someone on fire might be okay.