The at-sea deployment comes two years earlier than the Navy had planned. That may be a first in laser weapon development, where schedule slippage and cost overruns have been common. The New York Times reports LaWS cost just under $32 million, roughly two orders of magnitude less than the Airborne Laser , dropped from the fiscal 2011 budget after it failed to reach the required 200 km range.
|NAVY LaWS on board a ship during tests of the laser weapon. (Image courtesy of the US Navy)|
LaWS is part of the new generation of electrically powered solid-state laser weapons , which Navy officials say offer two advantages. One is a "deep magazine," the ability to fire pulses as long as electrical power is available--and ships have plenty of power. The other is cost. Klunder said, "Our conservative data tells us a shot of directed energy costs under $1," compared to $100,000 or more to fire a missile.
The choice of LaWS marks a big success for fiber lasers. When the Pentagon launched the Joint High Power Solid-State Laser (JHPSSL) program in 2002, developers focused on diode-pumped slab lasers, which at the time seemed the technology most likely to reach the 100 kW sought for defense against rockets, artillery, and mortars. JHPSSL reached that level in 2009, but fiber lasers have been catching up. The Naval Sea Systems Command reached 30 kW by combining the beams from six 5.5 kW industrial fiber lasers to shoot down a drone in 2010. LaWS has been upgraded since then, but Navy officials did not disclose the output power of the current system.
The laser is not the only challenge. For the current version of LaWS, L-3 Integrated Optical Systems (Pittsburgh, PA) upgraded the pointing and tracking system, improving accuracy of the fine steering mirror and controls, and improving the software and user interface. "We took scientists out of the loop to make it operable by seamen," said Don Linnell, director of business development and strategy. The Navy considers that a must for fielding laser weapons.