Sometime this summer, the US Navy plans to deploy a new "death ray" laser weapon system. The device has already been mounted on the USS Ponce, a naval vessel assigned to engage in "war exercises" off the Iranian coast. The laser beam is not powerful enough to be used as a defensive tool: it can only be used to destroy slow-moving targets like drones and patrol boats. Iran routinely dispatches drones and small boats when the US conducts military provocations in the waters of the Gulf.
US Navy Plans to Deploy a "Death Ray" Weapon in Persian Gulf
Sometime this year—with turmoil in the Middle East already at a fever pitch -- the US Navy plans to deploy a new laser weapon aboard the USS Ponce, a naval vessel that has been assigned to engage in "war exercises" off the coast of Iran.
In videos released by the Pentagon, an invisible, yet powerful, beam of energy sets fire to an unmanned drone aircraft flying overhead at some distance. The flaming aircraft tumbles into the ocean. This is the Laser Weapons System (LaWS) at work. The current weapon is a low-power (15-50 kilowatt) prototype of a planned 100 kW "death ray" that could someday fry guided missiles in mid-trajectory.
According to Pentagon officials, the current low-power LaWS could prove useful against (1) slow-flying drones and (2) small boats. The current design is not effective against any target traveling at advanced speeds because the heat-effect builds up slowly—i.e., "it needs time to work."
The distinction is important: This means the laser has no use as a "defensive" weapon. It is an "offensive" weapon, plain and simple.
The Pentagon frequently stages US military exercises off the shores of distant nations as a way of "showing the flag" and "sending a message." The countries targeted for such unsolicited displays of naval might understandably view these intrusions as provocations. Conducting US "war games" in the Persian Gulf region is a dangerous stunt that is fraught with peril. Especially since it runs the risk of a face-off between the US and Iran.
Iran in known to monitor US warships in the waters near its borders and Tehran uses both pilotless drones and speedboats for this purpose. Were the US to use this new laser weapon against Iran's ships or aerial surveillance craft, it could be seen as an act of aggression—risking injury and death to Iranian sailors. If US "field tests" of the new LaWS system happened to bring down and Iranian drone or sink an Iranian patrol boat, that could trigger retaliation from Tehran, leading to further escalations.
Torching Speedboats and Drones
In a test off the California coast in April 2011, the Navy's experimental Maritime Laser Demonstrator (MLD), a solid-state 15-kilowatt solid-state laser, was able to ignite the engines on a small targeted boat. In a matter of seconds, the vessel was set on fire.
In less than three years after Northrop Grumman won a $98 million Navy contract to design the MLD, the prototype – in its very first at-sea trial—demonstrated its ability to cause "catastrophic failure" on a moving vessel in the open sea.
In an interview with Spencer Ackerman, then the host of Wired magazine's Danger Room blog, Rear Adm. Nevin Carr beamed, "I never thought we'd see this kind of progress this quickly, where we're approaching a decision of when we can put laser weapons on ships."
Solid-state lasers operating in the tens of kilowatts have shown they can be both accurate and deadly – as long as the targets are slow-moving or stationary. Before laser weapons are able to take down a supersonic jet or an incoming missile, it will be necessary to ramp up the weapon's power significantlyto at least 100 kilowatts.
While buoyed by the success of the MLD, Adm. Carr wasn't satisfied. While the MLD's destruction of a small speedboat was "an important data point," he noted, "I still want the Megawatt Death Ray."
The Megawatt Class Death Ray
In 2011, scientists at a weapons lab in Newport News, Virginia, were able to produce a 500kV blast from an electron gun. This success promised to accelerate the development and deployment of a "megawatt-class" laser capable of taking down a missile or slicing holes in an enemy vessel.
The Navy's goal is to perfect a Free Electron Laser (FEL), an energy-beam weapon with adjustable wavelengths that could bore through dust and sea spray to deliver a knockout blow—burning through enemy vehicles and vessels at the rate of 2,000-feet-of-steel-per-second. (By comparison, the world's most powerful free-electron laser currently is capable of cutting through 20-feet-of-steel-per-second.)
With work on the FEL's electron injectors reportedly ahead of schedule, the Office of Naval Research expects to see it's first death ray device deployed sometime in the 2020s.
According to Admiral Carr, the arrival of the FEL and the Navy's Mach-8 electromagnetic rail gun will enable the US to begin "fighting at the speed of light and hypersonics."
But for the moment, the Navy must make do with the solid-state MLD.
Death Rays in the Gulf
The timing of a joint US-South Korea "war game" in the waters near North Korea recently lead that country's leader to threaten to rain nuclear-tipped missiles on US holdings from Guam to Nebraska.
Despite the rising tensions in the Gulf Region (where Israel's cross-border airstrikes into Syria raise the risks of a spreading regional war), the Pentagon scheduled a major military exercise in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. The International Mine Countermeasures Exercise (IMCMEX) ran from May 6-30 and involved vessels and personnel from 30 countries.
Commodore Simon Ancona, the deputy commander of the Combined Maritime Forces, described the military show-of-force as a "multidisciplinary defense exercise" designed to protect oil tankers, oil terminals and oil and gas exporters in the region. In addition to placing a first-generation "death ray" on board a ship plowing through the waters near Iran, the Pentagon plans to launch drones to provide surveillance information to US-military forces in the region.
Drones are part of the tension equation in the Persian Gulf. On March 14, 2013, Iran scrambled a jet fighter to chase down a US Predator drone that strayed too close to Iranian airspace. The US had two military aircraft shadowing the drone in international waters and, according to CNN, the Iranian jet retreated after "a verbal warning." In November 2012, Iran shot down a US drone over the Persian Gulf.
In April 2013, the New York Times reflected that bolting a death ray to the deck of a US naval vessel "seemed meant as a warning to Iran not to step up activity in the Gulf." As if to drive the message home, the Navy released a video of a LaWS system being tested in the waters off San Diego. A laser beam was trained on a slow-flying drone. In less than five seconds, the aircraft burst into flame and plummeted into the sea.
The 14-kilovolt solid-state LaWS the Navy has installed on the USS Ponce is capable of burning holes in small boats and propeller-driven aircraft. The Navy notes the LaWS will allow US sailors in the Persian Gulf "to easily defeat small boat threats and aerial targets without using bullets." The term "aerial targets" refers to drones.
The Pentagon is well aware of the fact that Iran's favored response to US military activities in Persian Gulf waters is to dispatch small fleets of "fast boats" and swarms of aerial drones.
In the sanitized language of Washington, the depiction of "defeating small boat threats" intentionally ignores the fact that any boats (and aircraft) targeted for destruction will be manned by human beings who will not simply be "defeated," they will also be burned, scarred and incinerated by a new kind of weapon the likes of which the world has never known.
The Pentagon estimates it would take a laser with a power-punch in the 100-kilovolt range to offer any practical defense against an attack from an incoming artillery shell, fighter jet or missile. This underscores the fact that the LaWS can only be used as an offensive weapon, trained on non-threatening or low-threat "targets of opportunity."
Peter A. Morrison, an ONR program officer with the LaWS program, has praised these new laser weapons that the Pentagon is rushing to the battlefield. "The solid-state laser is a big step forward to revolutionizing modern warfare with directed energy, just as gunpowder did in the era of knives and swords," Morrison observes.
But is it reasonable to characterize each new Pentagon weapon as an "advancement"? Especially since every military innovation—from flame-throwers to nuclear bombs—has eventually been duplicated and adopted by "enemy" nations. Instead of securing the threat of unique capacities of devastation in the hands of a single, unchallengeable Superpower, each new military breakthrough has led to new round of proliferation allowing new, ever-deadlier weapons of war to spread around the planet.
Electronic "death rays" pose such a unique danger that a growing chorus of voices are calling for a moratorium on deployment. Ultimately, critics insist, such weapons should be outlawed and banned from the battlefield—like chemical gases and anti-personal weapons.
Gar Smith is Editor Emeritus of Earth Island Journal, co-founder of Environmentalists Against War and author of Nuclear Roulette.