WASHINGTON — The Navy is going to sea for the first time with a laser attack weapon that has been shown in tests to disable patrol boats and blind or destroy surveillance drones.
A prototype shipboard laser will be deployed on a converted amphibious transport and docking ship in the Persian Gulf, where Iranian fast-attack boats have harassed U.S. warships and where the government in Tehran is building remotely piloted aircraft carrying surveillance pods and, someday potentially, rockets.
The laser will not be operational until next year, but the announcement Monday by Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the chief of naval operations, seemed meant as a warning to Iran not to step up activity in the Gulf in the next few months if tensions increase because of sanctions and the impasse in negotiations over the Iranian nuclear program.
The laser is designed to carry out a graduated scale of missions, from burning through a fast-attack boat or a drone to producing a nonlethal burst to “dazzle” an adversary’s sensors and render them useless, without causing any other physical damage.
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The Pentagon has a long history of grossly inflating claims for its experimental weapons, but a nonpartisan study for Congress said the weapon offered historic opportunities for the Navy.
“Equipping Navy surface ships with lasers could lead to changes in naval tactics, ship design and procurement plans for ship-based weapons, bringing about a technological shift for the Navy — a ‘game changer’ — comparable to the advent of shipboard missiles in the 1950s,” said the assessment, by the Congressional Research Service, a branch of the Library of Congress.
The study found that the new high-energy laser “could provide Navy surface ships with a more cost-effective means of countering certain surface, air and ballistic missile targets.”
Among the limitations, according to the research service, is that lasers are not effective in bad weather because the beam can be disturbed or scattered by water vapor, as well as by smoke, sand and dust. It is also a “line of sight” weapon, meaning the target has to be visible, so it cannot be used against threats over the horizon. And enemies can take countermeasures like coating vessels and drones with reflective surfaces.
Navy officials acknowledge that the first prototype weapon to be deployed is not powerful enough to take on jet fighters or missiles on their approach. That capability is a goal of researchers.
Among the advantages cited in the study for Congress was the low cost — less than $1 per sustained pulse — of using a high-energy laser against certain targets. By comparison, current short-range air-defense interceptor missiles cost up to $1.4 million each.
The laser weapon also has a limitless supply of ammunition — pulses of high energy — so long as the ship can generate electricity. The beam can reach its target at the speed of light and can track fast-moving targets.
Rear Adm. Matthew Klunder, the chief of naval research, said the high-energy laser system was developed as part of the Navy’s search for “new, innovative, disruptive technologies.”
Klunder said the weapon had destroyed targets in all 12 of its field tests.
The laser prototype cost just under $32 million, officials said. But if the weapon proves itself during its sea trials, and the order is given to buy the laser system for service across the fleet, the price per unit is expected to drop.
Rear Adm. Thomas J. Eccles, the deputy commander for naval systems engineering, said the first laser device would be deployed on the Ponce, which serves as a floating base for military operations and humanitarian assistance in the waters of the Middle East and southwestern Asia.