Laser beams to protect U.S. Navy from drones

A laser weapon on a U.S. Navy ship
A laser weapon on a U.S. Navy ship
CBS News

(CBS News) PENTAGON - Laser beams fired directly from U.S. Navy ships will soon be used to protect American Navy boats targeted by unmanned drones -- using technology to burn the drones like a blow torch.

"This will indeed be the first, real world deployment of a directed energy weapon," said Rear Admiral Matthew Klunder, chief of naval research.

Klunder said the laser weapon will be deployed in the Persian Gulf where Iranian speedboats and unmanned aerial vehicles -- UAVs for short -- sometimes harass U.S. Navy ships.

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"If we have to provide some type of weapon system against a small, fast boat or UAV, this would be the system," said Kundler.

If launched from a ship, despite the bobbing of waves, the laser beam is able to stay on its target.

Turn down the power and it can fire a warning shot or blind a spy camera trying to take pictures.

"We can actually dazzle that sensor and degrade it completely. We can actually almost turn it off," said Kundler.

Rear Admiral Matthew Klunder, Chief of Naval Research
Rear Admiral Matthew Klunder, Chief of Naval Research CBS News

The laser won't work against high-speed targets like incoming missiles or jet fighters, and bad weather can distort the beam, but it cost just $40 million to develop and build over six years and has the potential to revolutionize both the economics and technology of warfare, which today relies on weapons like the sidewinder missile at $475,000 a shot.

"When we shoot one pulse of directed energy, of laser energy, it's about one dollar. It's actually a little less than a U.S. dollar compared to something that right now make take thousands of dollars, maybe even millions of dollars," said Klunder.

The laser, the only weapon which can travel at the speed of light, is due to arrive in the Persian Gulf next year.

  • David Martin

    David Martin is CBS News' National Security Correspondent.