AN/SEQ-3 Laser Weapon System
|Laser Weapon System|
The Laser Weapon System (LaWS) aboard USS Ponce.
|Place of origin||United States|
|Used by||US Navy|
|Manufacturer||Kratos Defense & Security Solutions|
The AN/SEQ-3 Laser Weapon System or XN-1 LaWS is a laser weapon developed by the United States Navy. The weapon was installed on USS Ponce for field testing in 2014. In December 2014, the United States Navy reported that the LaWS system worked perfectly against low-end asymmetric threats, and that the commander of the Ponce is authorized to use the system as a defensive weapon.
The LaWS is a ship-defense system that has so far publicly engaged an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV or drone) and a simulated small-boat attacker. LaWS uses an infrared beam from a solid-state laser array which can be tuned to high output to destroy the target or low output to warn or cripple the sensors of a target. Among the advantages of this device versus projectile weapons is the low cost per shot, as each firing of the weapon requires only the minimal cost of generating the energetic pulse; by contrast ordnance for projectile weapons must be designed, manufactured, handled, transported and maintained, and takes up storage space.
The LaWS is designed to be used against low-end asymmetric threats. Scalable power levels allow it to be used on low-power to dazzle a person's eye to non-lethally make them turn away from a threatening posture, and increase to 30 thousand watts (30 kW) to fry sensors, burn out motors, and detonate explosive materials. Against a vital point on small UAVs, one can be shot down in as little as two seconds. When facing small boats, the laser would target a craft's motor to disable it and make it "dead in the water," then repeating this against others in rapid succession, requiring only a few seconds of firing per boat. Targeting the platform is more effective than individual crewmembers, although the LaWS is accurate enough to target explosive rockets if on board, whose detonations could kill the operators. Against a larger aircraft like a helicopter, LaWS can burn through some vital components to cause it to fall and crash.
In 2010, Kratos Defense & Security Solutions was awarded an $11 million contract to support the Naval Surface Warfare Center (NSWC) in the development of LaWS for the U.S. Navy's Directed Energy and Electric Weapon Systems (DE&EWS) program. The May 2012 NSWC test used a close-in weapon control system to enable the beam director to track an unmanned aerial vehicle target.
The LaWS was to be installed on USS Ponce in summer 2014 for a 12-month trial deployment. The Navy spent about $40 million over the past six years on research, development, and testing of the laser weapon. It is directed to targets by the Phalanx CIWS radar. With tests going well, the Navy expected to deploy a laser weapon operationally between 2017 and 2021 with an effective range of 1 mi (1.6 km; 0.87 nmi). The exact level of power the LaWS will use is unknown but estimated between 15–50 kW for engaging small aircraft and high-speed boats. Directed-energy weapons are being pursued for economic reasons, as they can be fired for as little as one dollar per shot, while conventional gun rounds and missiles can cost thousands of dollars each. The Navy has a history of testing energy weapons, including megawatt chemical lasers in the 1980s. Their chemicals were found to be too hazardous for shipboard use, so they turned to less powerful fiber solid-state lasers. Other types can include slab solid state and free electron lasers. The LaWS benefitted from commercial laser developments, with the system basically being six welding lasers "strapped together" that, although they don't become a single beam, all converge on the target at the same time. It generates 33 kW in testing, with follow-on deployable weapons generating 60–100 kW mounted on a Littoral Combat Ship or Arleigh Burke-class destroyer to destroy fast-attack boats, drones, manned aircraft, and anti-ship cruise missiles out to a few miles. In the short term, the LaWS will act as a short-range, self-defense system against drones and boats, while more powerful lasers in the future should have enough power to destroy anti-ship missiles; Navy slab lasers have been tested at 105 kW with increases to 300 kW planned. Laser weapons like the LaWS are meant to complement other missile and gun-based defense systems rather than replace them. While lasers are significantly cheaper and have virtually unlimited magazines, their beams can be disrupted by atmospheric and weather conditions (especially when operating at the ocean's surface) and are restricted to line-of-sight firing to continuously keep the beam on target. More conventional systems will remain in place for larger and longer-range targets that require the use of kinetic defense.
The LaWS was deployed on the Ponce in late August 2014 to the Persian Gulf with the U.S. 5th Fleet. The deployment is to test the feasibility of a laser weapon in a maritime environment against heat, humidity, dust, and salt water and to see how much power is used. The system has scalable power levels to be able to fire a non-lethal beam to dazzle a suspect vessel, and fire stronger beams to physically destroy a target; range is classified. Although neighboring Iran has threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz out of the Gulf using small boat swarms that the LaWS is able to counter, it was not designed or deployed specifically to be used against any one particular country.
In September 2014, the LaWS was declared an operational asset, so the ship commander has permission to use it for self-defense. Humans are not a target of the weapon under stipulations of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, but targets do include UAVs, helicopters, and fast patrol craft. Rules of engagement have been developed for its use, but details have not been released, although the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons Rules of Engagement (ROE) prohibit using laser weapons against humans. The Navy has released video of the LaWS on deployment disabling a ScanEagle UAV, detonating a rocket propelled grenade, and burning out the engine of a rigid hull inflatable boat. Officials said it is working beyond expectations. Compared to hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars for a missile, one laser shot costs only 59 cents. Composed of commercial laser components and proprietary Navy software, it is powered and cooled by a "skid" through a diesel generator, separate from the ship's electrical systems, giving greater efficiency relative to power provided of 35 percent. Mounted on the Ponce's superstructure above the bridge, its powerful optics are also useful as a surveillance tool that can detect objects at unspecified but "tactically significant ranges"; sailors have equated its surveillance abilities to having the Hubble telescope at sea. Sailors are using it for targeting and training daily, whether to disable or destroy test targets or for potential target identification. The system is operated through a flat screen monitor and a gaming system-like controller integrated into the ship's combat system, so anyone with experience playing common video games can operate the weapon. It has functioned well against adverse weather, and is able to work in high humidity and after a dust storm. However, the system is not expected to work during harsh sandstorms and has not been tested in such conditions because "it didn't make much sense to", but threats would also not be expected to be operational under the same conditions. Deployments on other ships are being examined and although the LaWS was planned to remain deployed for one year, it performed so well that fleet leadership decided to keep it on the Ponce as long as it was at sea.
Following a review of several ship classes to determine which had available space, power, and cooling, it was decided that after the Ponce's planned decommissioning in 2018, the LaWS will be moved to the new amphibious transport dock ship USS Portland (LPD-27) for indefinite testing. It will utilise the space and power connections reserved for its vertical launching system to house the LaWS power and control modules while the laser itself will be bolted to the deck. Because the installation will be only a trial, LaWS will not be integrated into the ship's warfare system.
In January 2018, the Navy announced a $150 million contract with Lockheed Martin for the production of two more LaWS units to be delivered in 2020; one will be fitted to USS Arleigh Burke (DDG-51) while the other will be used for land-based testing. Further contract options could bring its value to $942.8 million.
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