The Navy Has a Frickin' Drone-Shooting Laser

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The U.S. Navy unveiled a laser capable of blasting away enemy drones Monday, and announced that it would likely be deployed on a real live U.S. naval ship some time early next year. The Office of Naval Research released this footage Monday of the Laser Weapon System (or LaWS for short) — footage in which the device actually shot down an unmanned aerial vehicle (the surveillance kind, the armed ones) during tests last summer. The weapon has advanced so much that the Navy plans to install one onto the U.S.S. Ponce sometime before its maiden voyage in the Middle East in early 2014. The Ponce was one of the Navy's oldest warships, but it's received an Extreme Naval Makeover into a state-of-the-art floating staging base. 

The LaWS laser is powerful enough to take on "planes, drones and boats," according to NBC News. But it's obviously more complicated than that. The laser can only take out surveillance drones or "fast attack boats." As Wired's Spencer Ackerman points out, the laser does have it's limitations:

The fact that LaWS can kill a surveillance drone and a fast-attack boat has more to do with the vulnerabilities of those systems than it its own prowess. It cannot stop an anti-ship missile, and its beam, about the circumference of a dime, will do little more than singe a fighter jet. And there remain significant challenges with cooling a shipboard high-energy laser, a necessary safety feature.

The state of American warfare is cooler than you think. The Navy is expected to start development on lasers that would be powerful enough to take on warheads, or armored ships, or armored boats.

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The main reason some military watchers are excited about the future of lasers is that they're so, well, cheap. According to Rear Adm. Matthew Klunder, the Navy's chief of research, it costs less to fire a laser than it would cost to buy a bag of Lays chips. "We're not talking about something that costs millions of dollars or multi-thousands of dollars," Klunder bragged to Ackerman. "We're talking something — and this is true data; remember, I'm a test pilot, so I deal in data, I don’t deal in PowerPoints, I deal in real performance data — we’re talking about a pulse of directed energy that costs under a U.S. dollar." Naval affairs specialist Ronald O'Rourke, in a report to Congress last month, was equally bullish about the low costs of lasers turning into a big part of the future of American weaponry: "Compared to existing ship self-defense systems, such as missiles and guns, lasers could provide Navy surface ships with a more cost effective means of countering certain surface, air, and ballistic missile targets," he wrote. Sequester? What sequester?

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