The US Navy has been pursuing solid-state laser weapons capable of setting other vessels on fire for years, but now one is almost ready to actually be put out to sea. The Office of Naval Research (ONR) today announced that it is aiming to "field and test a solid-state laser prototype" in early 2014 aboard the USS Ponce. The Ponce is a transport vessel from the 1970s that was recently upgraded into a hi-tech floating base and is stationed in the Persian Gulf, in range of Iranian attack boats.
As evidence of how far it's come with laser technology, the Navy released videos and imagery today of its prototype cannon tracking and burning a small drone out of the sky. The test firing took place off the coast of California in July last year, an ONR spokesperson told The Verge. It followed on the heels of a previous test of the Navy's laser weapons in early 2011, when a laser cannon was used to ignite and destroy a small boat.
"a major show of confidence" in the technology
Putting such a weapon out into the field aboard the Ponce, however, is "a major show of confidence" in the technology, as Danger Room's Spencer Ackerman wrote last month. That's especially true given the fact that defense spending is likely to face cuts in the upcoming federal budget. Still, the Navy thinks the technology is worth further investment in and may actually be cheaper than other current defense weapons. "Compared to existing ship self-defense systems, such as missiles and guns," a Navy specialist wrote in a report to Congress last month, "lasers could provide Navy surface ships with a more cost effective means of countering certain surface, air, and ballistic missile targets." The latest test is further evidence that the Navy is setting its laser ambitions higher than you may have guessed.