A prototype laser self-defense weapon is to be deployed on a U.S. Navy ship in the Gulf of Arabia early next year for an operational demonstration.

The Laser Weapon System (LaWS) will be integrated onto the amphibious transport dock USS Ponce, which is permanently stationed in the Gulf.

The deployment is expected to last six months, during which the Navy plans to conduct live-fire tests, but also have the weapon available for use operationally against hostile fast-attack craft and unmanned aircraft.

The LaWS has been developed by an industry team led by the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren division as a technology demonstrator. The system was installed on the Aegis destroyer USS Dewey for initial at-sea trials in July-August last year; the laser shot down three UAVs in three live-fire tests.

Based on industrial fiber laser technology, the LaWS was selected for the operational demonstration because is was the most mature high-energy laser available for integration on the Ponce, says Rear Adm. Matthew Klunder, chief of naval research.

Under a second phase of the Office of Naval Research’s (ONR) innovative naval prototype program, industry teams are already studying other high-energy lasers that could be used in a follow-on, production-representative weapon system, he says.

The LaWS has been tested previously on land, initially in a desert environment at NAS China Lake, Calif., and subsequently in a maritime environment on San Nicholas Island off the California coast.

For the Dewey tests off San Diego, the containerized system was mounted on the destroyer’s helicopter flight deck and operated standalone. The three successful shots mean the LaWS has gone “12 for 12” in live-fire tests against UAVs, Klunder says.

For the Ponce deployment, the LaWS will be installed in a location suitable for a ship self-defense weapon and integrated with the vessel’s combat system, including the existing sensors and operator console for the ship’s close-in weapon system (CIWS).

Sailors will be trained to operate the laser weapon system and its control station will have “a look and feel” similar to that of the CIWS, says Rear Adm. Thomas Eccles, chief engineer and deputy commander for naval systems engineering at Naval Sea Systems Command.

Power capability is classified, but the LaWS “is in the ballpark of industrial lasers,” Eccles says. Industrial lasers have power levels in the tens of kilowatts, lower than military-grade, solid-state, high-power lasers, which have exceeded 100 kw in tests.

Nonetheless, the system has demonstrated a lethal capability against fast-attack craft and threat-representative UAVs, at significant ranges, he says, adding “the Gulf of Arabia is a perfect place to test this.”

Additionally, the laser weapon’s output can be dialed down to provide a non-lethal deterrence capability by dazzling or heating the occupants of approaching boats “to make them think again.”

The high-power laser also makes it possible to identify potential targets at significantly increased range, Klunder says, “allowing a better rules-of-engagement decision.”

Results of the operational demonstration could shape the requirements for a future laser weapon program, with ONR aiming for a system that can be installed on any existing warship. “There is still a lot to be learned,” Eccles says.

For the Ponce deployment, as for the Dewey trial, the LaWS will have its own generator to power the laser. But “our ships have today the capability of providing the power margin necessary” for a fully integrated system, Eccles says.