WASHINGTON — Sailors have been authorized to use a cutting-edge laser weapon in self-defense, Navy officials said Wednesday.
The Laser Weapon System, or LaWS, has been onboard the USS Ponce in the Persian Gulf since September. During the past few months, the Navy has been testing it in an operational environment for the first time to see how it performs in real-world conditions, attacking small surface vessels and unmanned aerial vehicles similar to those that could pose a threat to American ships in the region.
The system has gone after mock targets both mobile and stationary.
“This is the first time in recorded history that a directed energy weapon system has ever deployed on anything,” Rear Adm. Matthew Klunder, the chief of naval research, told reporters at the Pentagon.
For the remainder of the laser’s yearlong deployment, sailors will continue experimenting with the system and learning new tactics that could be used in future combat.
Earlier this week, the Navy posted a YouTube video showing the laser in action.
“It’s working even beyond our expectations,” Klunder said.
The system is performing so well in fact that U.S. military leaders have given the captain of the Ponce permission to use it if the ship is threatened, according to Klunder.
Pentagon officials are concerned that Iran or a terrorist group could use drones or small attack boats against American naval vessels.
“If we have to defend that ship today, we will destroy a threat if it comes inbound ... And we have the [rules of engagement] to support that,” Klunder said.
He didn’t lay out the rules of engagement, but did note that the Navy won’t target individuals with the laser because doing so would violate the Geneva Conventions. However, laser operators are allowed to kill people by destroying threatening ships or aircraft.
Rear Adm. Bryant Fuller, the deputy commander of ship design, integration and naval engineering at Naval Sea Systems Command, said the laser is fully operational and integrated into the Ponce’s radar systems.
“We haven’t actually engaged a threat [yet],” Klunder said, “but the reality is, it’s ready.”