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Navy Lasers’ First Target: Enemy Drones

• Spencer Ackerman via

One of the first tasks the Navy expects to assign its forthcoming arsenal of laser guns: shooting down drones that menace its ships.

The Navy is confident that laser cannons will move out of science fiction and onto the decks of its surface ships by the end of the decade. Its futurists at the Office of Naval Research still have visions of scalable laser blasts that can fry an incoming missile at the rate of 20 feet of steel per second. But now that laser guns are approaching reality, Pentagon officials are starting to consider the practicalities of what they’ll be used for, and they’re not thinking missiles — yet. Among their initial missions will be the relatively easier task of tracking and destroying unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, that fly too close to Navy ships.

Attacking drones is “a near-term application for the type of lasers we’re talking about,” says David Stoudt, a Pentagon policy official. “If you’ve got a UAV coming at a ship,” he explains, “maybe you use the laser for UAVs and keep your missiles for higher-end threats.”

Stoudt, the Pentagon policy office’s senior director for naval capabilities and readiness, chairs a relatively new steering group inside the Navy and Marine Corps that’s thinking through exactly how they’ll use this new “directed energy” technology — i.e., lasers and other ray guns. It’s got some bureaucratic heft to it: About 20 to 25 admirals and generals sit on it; and below them, another 150 to 175 captains and other officers of lower rank, from across the fleet and the Corps, comprise a working group that fills in some of the detail.

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