The U.S. Navy Just Shipped a Giant Laser Cannon (We Have Questions)

David Axe

The U.S. Navy on Oct. 17, 2019 began shipping a powerful new laser weapon from a Northrop Grumman facility in Redondo Beach, California to a Navy base in San Diego.

The War Zone was the first to report on the painstaking process of moving the bulky weapon.

In San Diego, workers will install the 150-kilowatt laser on the amphibious assault ship USS Portland. The vessel’s crew plans to test the new weapon beginning this year as part of an accelerating effort by the Navy to install laser cannons on its warships.

Northrop Grumman built the laser under the auspices of the Navy’s $53-million Solid-State Laser Technology Maturation program, which launched in 2015.

As a shipboard weapon, a laser could hold several advantages over traditional weapons such as guns or missiles. For one, a laser does not need ammunition. As long as the ship has power, the laser can continue firing. A laser also could strike targets faster than, say, a missile could do.

But today’s lasers lack the power and range to destroy large targets or do any damage at all at ranges farther than a few miles. SSL-TM and a related effort at Lockheed Martin could result in lasers with the power and range to defend ships from drones, small boats, cruise missiles and even ballistic missiles.

"Low-cost directed-energy weapons have to be part of our future," Adm. William Moran, then Vice Chief of Naval Operations, said at an industry conference in 2016. "If we have to continue to rely on projectiles, we will run out of the ability to defend ourselves."

The Navy intends SSL-TM to be a learning experience, USNI News explained. The service selected Portland to host the weapon because the 25,000-ton-displacement vessel possesses the space and spare electrical power effectively to host Northrop’s tractor-trailer-size laser.

“Once installed on the ship, the Navy will learn much about laser weapons through SSL-TM testing,” USNI News reporter Megan Eckstein wrote.

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