It’s Neither ‘Star Wars’ Nor 007, It’s The United States Navy’s Active Laser Weapons System

John F. WilliamsJohn F. Williams

Who could forget one of the most famous scenes in the iconic James Bond canon, when 007 finds himself tied to a table in Auric Goldfinger’s lair, watching as a laser beam slowly slices its way towards his crotch?

“Do you expect me to talk?” asks a nervous Sean Connery.

Auric swivels round and casually replies, “No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die.”

At the time of Goldfinger’s release in 1964, the materialization of a laser beam was only four years old. In 1960, Theodore Maiman first realized his concept of a laser beam in his laboratory at the Hughes Research Facility in California.

Ever since then, of course, Hollywood creatives have been embellishing on the invention, ultimately turning it into endless imaginative devices used for decades by fictitious villains bent on global destruction.

One of the most famous examples of a fictional super-laser was the Death Star, an original brainchild of Star Wars creator George Lucas. With precision accuracy and immensely destructive power, the Death Star was capable of reducing whole planets to dust within seconds.

The stuff of science fiction. At least, until now.

CNN was recently granted an all-access preview of the U.S. Navy’s latest technological marvel aboard the “Proud Lion.” The Laser Weapons System (LaWS) is no longer a Hollywood abstraction.

In fact, it’s about as real and as impressive as it gets.

Office of Naval Research sponsored laser development while deployed to the Arabian Gulf
The U.S.S. Ponce conducts an operational demonstration of the Laser Weapon System (LaWS). [Image by John F. Williams/U.S. Navy]Featured image credit: John F. WilliamsJohn F. Williams

The world’s first active laser gun lives on the Navy’s Austin-class amphibious transport vessel, formally known as the U.S.S. Ponce, but more affectionately known as the “Proud Lion.” The ship is currently based in the Persian Gulf, navigating notoriously hostile waters.

Captain Christopher Wells is in command of the laser weapons system and is already authorized to use it. CNN was fortunate enough to witness the groundbreaking laser in action as the navy crew carried out live-fire tests.

Captain Wells told CNN’s field reporter that the laser is “more precise than a bullet.” According to Wells, the weapon isn’t limited – as many other navy weapons systems are – by which targets the laser can strike.

“In this case, this is a very versatile weapon; it can be used against a variety of targets.”

One of the laser weapons system’s greatest advantages is that the beam moves at the speed of light. The CNN report compares the speed to that of an incoming Intercontinental Ballistic Missile and reports that the laser is 50,000 times faster.

Members of the Directed Energy and Electric Weapon Systems Program Office prepare to fire a laser through a beam director
The Directed Energy and Electric Weapon Systems Program Office reveals a laser on a Kineto Tracking Mount. [Image by U.S. Navy]Featured image credit: U.S. NavyU.S. Navy

Lieutenant Cale Hughes explains that, while operating the laser, “we don’t worry about wind, we don’t worry about range, we don’t worry about anything else. We’re able to engage the targets at the speed of light.”

The laser weapons system emits massive amounts of photons and directs it, with unprecedented precision, at a target. Photons are elementary particles that carry light in the form of electromagnetic radiation. Always moving at the speed of light, photons will penetrate a target while releasing extreme thermal heat in the process.

While CNN was on board the U.S.S. Ponce, the crew was eager to conduct a test to demonstrate the sheer speed, power, and precision of the laser.

At the start of the test, the operators launch a small drone aircraft that would serve as the target. This is a strategic measure, as rival nations including Iran, North Korea, China, and Russia are increasingly resorting to the use of drone-based weapons.

As the drone launches into the air, the laser operators instantly zero in on their target. Lt. Hughes explains that “we don’t have to lead a target. We’re doing that engagement at the speed of light, so it really is a point and shoot. We see it, we focus on it, and we can negate that target.”

Moments into the demonstration, the laser beam is activated and instantly, as if it had been struck by lightning, the drone’s wing explodes into a ball of flames. The small aircraft can then be seen hurtling towards the ocean, glowing red-hot from the laser’s extreme electromagnetic radiation.

Laser drone tests carried out during the during the International Mine Countermeasures Exercise
Scan Eagle program members launch an unmanned aerial vehicle from the flight deck of the U.S.S. Ponce. [Image by Christopher Carson/U.S. Navy]Featured image credit: Christopher CarsonChristopher Carson

Impressively, the entire strike happens without a sound or any visible projectiles slicing through the air. Hughes says, “It operates in an invisible part of the electromagnetic spectrum, so you don’t see the beam, it doesn’t make any sound, it’s completely silent, and it’s incredibly effective at what it does.”

Due to the laser weapon system’s astonishing accuracy, naval officers are confident that collateral damage during wartime engagement will be reduced to almost nothing.

“I no longer have to worry about rounds that may go beyond the target and potentially hurt or damage things that I don’t want to hurt or damage,” adds Hughes.

Best of all? The laser system – coming in at the cost of $40 million – only requires an electricity source, which it draws from its own generator. All in all, the laser costs about one dollar per strike to operate. This is in stark contrast to the use of multi-million dollar missiles and traditional ammunition utilized by the rest of the military.

Another major perk that comes with the laser weapons system is the potential ability to shoot down enemy missiles. The CNN field reporter asks whether the capability for such a strike is a certainty.

“Maybe,” says Lt. Hughes with a twinkle in his eye.

[Featured Image by John F. Williams/U.S. Navy]