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US Navy's laser can kill drones

The LaWS, an acronym for laser weapons system, is deployed on board the USS Ponce amphibious transport ship, ready to be fired at hostile targets today and every day by Capt. Christopher Wells and his crew. (Source: CNN) The LaWS, an acronym for laser weapons system, is deployed on board the USS Ponce amphibious transport ship, ready to be fired at hostile targets today and every day by Capt. Christopher Wells and his crew. (Source: CNN)

(CNN) - It may sound like something from a science fiction novel: A weapon of light and photons that's silent, deadly and relatively cheap.

In the sometimes-hostile waters of the Persian Gulf looms the U.S. Navy's first - in fact, the world's first - active laser weapon.

The LaWS, an acronym for laser weapons system, is deployed on board the USS Ponce amphibious transport ship, ready to be fired at hostile targets today and every day by Capt. Christopher Wells and his crew. CNN was granted exclusive access to a live-fire test of the laser.

"It is more precise than a bullet," Wells said. "It's not a niche weapon system, like some other weapons that we have throughout the military. You know, where it's only good against air contacts or it's only good against surface targets or it's only good against, you know, ground based targets. In this case, this is a very versatile weapon. It can be used against a variety of targets."

LaWS begins with an advantage no other weapon ever invented comes even close to matching. It moves, by definition, at the speed of light. For comparison, that is 50,000 times the speed of an incoming ICBM.

"It is throwing massive amounts of photons at an incoming object," said Lt. Cale Hughes, laser weapons system officer. "We don't worry about wind. We don't worry about range, we don't worry about anything else."

First, the Ponce crew launches the target - an incoming drone aircraft, a weapon in increasing use by Iran, North Korea, China, Russia and other adversaries.

Immediately, the weapons team zeroes in on its target.

"We don't have to lead a target," Hughes said. "We're doing that engagement at the speed of light, so it really is a point and shoot. We see it, we focus on it, and we can negate that target."

Then, in an instant, the drone's wing lights up, heated to a temperature of thousands of degrees, lethally damaging the aircraft and sending it hurtling down to the sea.

All this, from a silent and invisible killer.

"It operates in an invisible part of the electromagnetic spectrum so you don't see the beam," Hughes said. "It doesn't make any sound, it's completely silent and it's incredibly effective at what it does."

It is remarkably precise, minimizing collateral damage. And all the $40 million system needs to operate is a supply of electricity and a crew of three. No multi-million-dollar missile, no ammunition at all. The cost per use?

"It's about a dollar a shot," Hughes said.

Today, the laser is intended primarily to disable or destroy aircraft and small boats. However, the Navy is already developing more powerful, second-generation systems which would bring more significant targets into its crosshairs: missiles.

Those missions remain classified. However, the commander and crew are very much aware of the potential capabilities.

"It's designed with the intent of being able to counter airborne and surface based threats, and it's been able to prove itself over the last three years as being incredibly effective at that," Hughes said.

Copyright 2017 CNN. All rights reserved.

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