Navy deploying laser weapon prototype in Persian Gulf

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WASHINGTON -- The Navy is going to sea for the first time with a laser attack weapon that has been shown in tests to disable patrol boats and blind or destroy surveillance drones.

A prototype shipboard laser will be deployed on a converted amphibious transport and docking ship in the Persian Gulf, where Iranian fast-attack boats have harassed U.S. warships and where the government in Tehran is building remotely piloted aircraft carrying surveillance pods and, some day potentially, rockets.

The laser will not be operational until next year, but the announcement Monday by Adm. Jonathan W. Greenert, the chief of naval operations, seemed meant as a warning to Iran not to step up activity in the gulf in the next few months if tensions increase because of sanctions and the impasse in negotiations over the Iranian nuclear program. The Navy released video and still images of the laser weapon burning through a drone during a test-firing.

The laser is designed to carry out a graduated scale of missions, from burning through a fast-attack boat or a drone to producing a nonlethal burst to "dazzle" an adversary's sensors and render them useless, without causing any other physical damage.

The Pentagon has a long history of grossly inflating claims for its experimental weapons, but a nonpartisan study for Congress said the weapon offered historic opportunities for the Navy.

Among the limitations, according to the Congressional Research Service, a branch of the Library of Congress, is that lasers are not effective in bad weather because the beam can be disturbed or scattered by water vapor, as well as by smoke, sand and dust. It is also a "line of sight" weapon, meaning that the target has to be visible, so it cannot attack threats over the horizon. And enemies can take countermeasures such as coating vessels and drones with reflective surfaces.

Navy officials acknowledge that the first prototype weapon to be deployed is not powerful enough to take on jet fighters or missiles on their approach. That capability is a goal of researchers.

Among the advantages cited in the study for Congress was the low cost -- less than $1 per sustained pulse -- of using a high-energy laser against certain targets. By comparison, current short-range air-defense interceptor missiles cost as much as $1.4 million each.

The laser weapon also has a limitless supply of ammunition -- pulses of high energy -- so long as the ship can generate electricity. The beam can reach its target at the speed of light and can track fast-moving targets.

The laser prototype cost just under $32 million, officials said. But if the weapon proves itself during its sea trials, and the order is given to buy the laser system for service across the fleet, the price per unit is expected to drop.

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