Not many cruising sailors would hazard a journey through the Indian Ocean right now, but the test of a high-energy laser weapon last week off the coast of California could point the way to a future useful deterrent that does not use lethal force or risk the lives of crew.
In the test Northrop Grumman’s Maritime Laser Demonstrator (MLD)—a diode-pumped solid-state high-energy laser weapon—successfully demonstrated that it could disable a boat by setting fire to its engines while at sea.
The high-energy laser (HEL) was fired from the Navy’s self-defense test ship—a former U.S. warship—USS Paul Foster in the Pacific Ocean test range on April 6, setting fire to a small and crewless twin-engine motor boat rolling in nearby choppy water.
'This is the first time a HEL, at these power levels, has been put on a navy ship, powered from that ship and used to defeat a target at range in a maritime environment,' said Peter Morrison, program officer for the U.S. Office of Naval Research (ONR).
According to the ONR, the HEL platform struck its target by working in conjunction with the host ship’s radar and navigation systems.
'We are learning a ton from this program—how to integrate and work with directed energy weapons,' Morrison said. 'All test results are extremely valuable regardless of the outcome.'
The Navy accomplished several other benchmarks during the testing, including integrating MLD with a ship's radar and navigation system and firing an electric laser weapon from a moving platform at-sea in a humid environment. Other tests of solid state lasers for the Navy have been conducted from land-based positions. Having access to a HEL weapon will one day provide a warfighter with options when encountering a small-boat threat, Morrison said.
'The results show that all critical technologies for an operational laser weapon system are mature enough to begin a formal weapon system development program,' said Steve Hixson, vice president, space and directed energy systems at Northrop Grumman's Aerospace Systems sector. 'Solid-state laser weapons are ready to transition to the fleet.'