Naval combat is finally entering the 21st Century. Last Wednesday, April 6th, the Office of Naval Research conducted a test of their Maritime Laser Demonstrator (MLD), a high energy laser capable of burning through metal built by Northrop Grumman. Firing from the deck of the USS Paul Foster, the MLD destroyed the outboard engine of a small boat, eventually setting the entire vessel on fire. Watch the test of the naval weapon in the video below, but don’t expect to see the laser beam – it’s invisible to the naked eye. (It’s definitely eerie to see the boat start to burn seemingly without cause.) At its current power level, the MLD is unlikely to be effective against large military ships, but this demonstration shows that the weapon could easily be deployed as a means of deterring and destroying pirates. Future systems are only going to get faster, smarter, and more powerful.
While the trial of the MLD, performed at San Nicholas off the coast of California, was limited in its scope, it did demonstrate several key elements of the system. The laser was energized to high levels 35 times, synchronized with onboard navigation and radar, and successfully hit a target while on a water-borne vessel. While the press releases from the Office of Naval Research and Northrop Grumman don’t explicitly mention the power of the test shot, the MLD is a repurposed version of Northrop’s Joint High Power Solid-State Laser (JHPSSL) Program, so it’s safe to assume it was around 15 kW. Relatively speaking, that’s not a lot of juice. It’s possible that, like the JHPSSL, the MLD could combine several 15kW lasers to produce a coordinated 100kW+ weapon capable of destroying heartier materials. Even at these low power levels, however, the MLD was more than a match for the outboard motor of the boat. I certainly wouldn’t want to face this laser unshielded, or be anywhere near unprotected fuel cannisters. Heck, considering how quickly the boat went up in flames in the video, I really don’t want to be near the receiving end of the laser at all.
Northrop Grumman’s MLD is just the latest in US military laser systems. Last summer we saw Raytheon’s 35kW laser shoot a flying drone out of the sky by combining the weapon with automated turret technology. In 2009 we saw a truck get its engine fried by an airplane mounted laser firing while in flight. Each of these tests demonstrates that laser technology is slowly moving from the pages of science fiction novels to the real world battlefield.
When that technology finally matures, it will have distinct advantages. It will have improved aim because it will not need to account for ballistic trajectories. It will be faster and more accurate, arriving at its target at the speed of light. It will be precise, striking at a point only a few centimeters across. It may be able to provide proportionate response, changing power levels to deal with different types of targets. The list goes on.
Combat laser systems, however, are still in the testing/proving phase. As cool as it may be to see a modern version of Archimedes’ Heat Ray, the MLD is still likely years away from ever being deployed in real world situations. The same goes for most of the other laser weapons we’ve reviewed. One day fairly soon, however, all these little Buck Rogers toys are going to be ready for action, and they’re going to be used – probably to great effect. As that happens, I hope that the non-military applications will arrive in full force as well. Weaponized lasers could be repurposed to combat malaria for instance. No matter what ends we put them to, the next generation of mobile laser systems are coming. Hooray for the future?