BATH (TIP): Some of the US navy’s futuristic weapons sound like something out of ‘Star Wars’, with lasers meant to shoot down drones and electric guns that fire projectiles at hypersonic speeds. That future is now. The navy plans to deploy its first laser on a ship later this year, and it aims to test an electromagnetic rail gun prototype on a vessel in two years.
For the US navy, it’s not so much about the whiz-bang technology as it is about the economics of such weapons. Both costs pennies on the dollar compared with missiles and smart bombs, and the weapons can be fired continuously, unlike missiles and bombs, which eventually run out. “It changes the way we fight,” said Captain Mike Ziv, programme manager for directed energy and electric weapon systems for the Naval Sea Systems Command.
The technology has evolved to the point that a prototype to be deployed on the USS Ponce this summer can be operated by a single sailor. The solid-state laser weapon system is designed to target what the US navy describes as “asymmetrical threats”. Those include drones, speed boats and swarm boats, all potential threats to warships in the Persian Gulf, where the Ponce is set to be deployed.
Rail guns, which have been tested on land in Virginia, fire a projectile at six or seven times the speed of sound — enough velocity to cause severe damage. The US navy sees them as replacing or supplementing oldschool guns, firing lethal projectiles from long distances. However, both systems have shortcomings. Lasers lose their effectiveness if it’s raining, if it’s dusty or if there’s turbulence in the atmosphere, and the rail gun needs vast amount of electricity, said Loren Thompson, defence analyst at Lexington Institute.