2015 Safety, Security and International Affairs

Peter A. Morrison and the U.S. Navy Solid State Laser Team

Provided the U.S. Navy with a new defense system by designing, building and testing the first-ever laser weapon to be approved for combat operations aboard a Navy ship.

In 2014, the U.S. Navy demonstrated the first-ever use of a laser gun aboard a ship at sea, raising the likelihood that directed energy weapons that were once part of science fiction will become a major force in the nation’s defense arsenal.

The game-changing laser weapons system project was led by Peter Morrison from the Office of Naval Research, providing the Navy with new technology to shoot down unmanned aerial vehicles, detonate shipboard ordnance and disable small attack boats.

“The laser weapons system demonstrates a transformational capability for the Navy, and it will change the way we fight in the future,” said Thomas Beutner of the Office of Naval Research. “Peter Morrison led this program from its inception to its successful completion.”

The laser weapons system, known as LaWS, was mounted on the amphibious transport ship USS Ponce that was patrolling the Persian Gulf in the summer of 2014. Battle tests proved that it could be fired in several ways, from a warning flash to a lethal beam that can set a drone or small boat on fire with its invisible high-energy ray, and destroy other moving targets.

According to military experts, the laser weapon, which is operated by a video-game like controller, offers new levels of precision and speed for naval warfighters facing new threats such as drones, where traditional guns and missiles would not be as effective.

It also brings increased safety for ships and crews since lasers are not dependent on gunpowder-based ordnance. Lasers run on generators aboard the ship that provide the power and cooling needed. They also cost far less to build, install and fire than traditional weapons, such as multimillion-dollar missiles. It is estimated that each laser costs less than $1 per shot.

“Laser weapons are powerful, affordable and will play a vital role in the future of naval combat operations,” Rear Adm. Matthew L. Klunder, chief of naval research, said in a statement. “We ran this particular weapon, a prototype, through some extremely tough paces, and it locked on and destroyed the targets we designated with near-instantaneous lethality.”

After the testing, the Navy declared the laser system as an operational asset, and U.S. Central Command gave permission for the commanding officer of the USS Ponce to defend the ship with the high power laser beam if necessary.

Under Morrison’s direction, a team of civilian scientists and engineers addressed significant technical requirements associated with building a weapon that directs a 30,000-watt laser beam at moving targets at great distance and precision from the deck of a moving ship, and while fully exposed to the harsh maritime environment.

The early prototype developed by the Navy team relied on commercial lasers normally used for manufacturing, as well as modified commercial telescopes, tracking mounts and software. They then designed it to withstand the challenging environment of a Navy warship and to achieve the needed performance and operational features.

Morrison and his team made numerous technical improvements to the software, hardware, control and information displays, and safety protocols during an accelerated 14-month design, development, building and testing cycle.

Frank Peterkin, the electric weapons program manager at the Office of Naval Research, said Morrison was instrumental in the success of the project, effectively making the case why lasers are necessary for future warfare, helping convince leaders to fund the program, managing cost and performance, keeping it on schedule and using his engineering expertise.

“He allowed skeptics to be heard and later converted them into supporters,” said Peterkin. “He was able to convey the importance of the laser weapons system to the leadership and how it fits into the Navy’s mission.”

Under this program, industry teams now have been selected to develop cost-effective, combat-ready laser prototypes that can be installed on other Navy vessels such as guided-missile destroyers or the Littoral combat ship in the early 2020s.

Morrison said there were many long hours, time constraints and high-level technical decisions that had to be made, as well as an internal education process to overcome “conventional thinking” and demonstrate the value of the system.

All along, Morrison said, his motivation has been “to protect the men and women aboard the Navy ships.”

“The maritime environment is unlike any other warfare arena in that sailors don’t have anywhere to go and must stand their ground or be forced to jump in the ocean if in harm’s way,” said Morrison. “I wanted to develop a system that offers a number advantages, the greatest being that they can be more confident and safer when confronted with any threat.”