In earlier tests, the LAWS had successfully shot down a drone. Once the system has matured, the LAWS is envisioned as a Close-In Weapon System (CIWS), which can provide terminal defense for naval platforms.
So far, the LAWS has only been tested against slow targets. In the future, it is to be tested against much faster and more more maneuverable targets in order for it to be a truly useful system.
The laser-based LAWS is a new type of CIWS, which doesn't rely on either guns, missiles or guns and missiles combined. Up to now, these had been the dominant forms providing terminal defense on ships.
Compared to more conventional CIWS, such as the gun-based Phalanx and missile-based RAM, the laser offers some advantages, including:
- The laser can reach the target almost instantaneously. Both guns and especially missiles needs some time to reach the target. From the point of detection, the laser can engage targets much faster.
- The laser can reach pin-point precision. Guns use a very crude method and even missiles aren't that accurate. In terms of accuracy, the laser certainly has the advantage.
- The intensity of the laser beam can be adjusted, which gives the option of using the laser in a non-lethal way. This is very hard to achieve with bullets and missiles.
- The laser could potentially be cheaper to operate, especially compared against missiles. Missile rounds such as RAM are relatively expensive. In theory, an engagement using the laser could reduce costs to a fraction.
The laser also has some potential drawbacks compared to existing types of defense, including:
- The laser is susceptible to diffraction, meaning that the light waves get bend and the beam loses strength as it travels through the atmosphere. Certain weather or environmental conditions can aggravate the effect.
- Very long range is hard to achieve with a laser. It may not be practical due to the large size and other requirements. Missiles can achieve longer range much easier.
- The laser may not be able to operate in all-weather conditions. This requires an alternative backup should the laser not be able to engage the target under specific conditions.
- The laser has high energy requirements compared to other systems. This requires a large power plant that can produce enough energy. Only larger ships have this and smaller ships may require an alternative system.
It remains to be seen if the laser will ever be inducted into service. Laser systems have been in development for a long time and take a prominent role in popular culture, especially in movies.
They do offer some potential benefits that speak to the imagination of many people. On the other hand, they have certain issues that need to be resolved first. Technology does evolve continually and only time will tell what role the laser will play.