What the video shows is the new, unimaginatively named Laser Weapon System, or LaWS, that the Naval Sea Systems Command has developed to shoot down enemy drones and disable small boats. In just under one minute of footage, the video shows the LaWS first setting a target drone afire, and then literally cutting it in half while in flight.
Installed aboard the Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS Dewey, the LaWS is said to have shot down three drones in tests conducted off the California coast last summer. Further tests conducted on land resulted in a further nine shootdowns. So it's official now, folks. The U.S. Navy now has a bona fide laser gun in its arsenal. And as Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert avers: "It works."
Most amazingly of all, the new LaWS was apparently developed on a relative shoestring budget (in Pentagon terms) -- a mere $40 million, invested over six years of research, spent to develop the prototype. Already, the program is said to be two years ahead of schedule in its development. Next year, the Navy intends to put the weapon in the field in maneuvers off the Iranian coast aboard the Austin-class amphibious transport dock USS Ponce. And if all goes well, and the weapon goes into production, the cost of subsequent systems should drop dramatically.
Speaking of costs, Chief of Naval Research Rear Adm. Matthew Klunder says the LaWS will cost "about one dollar to shoot." That's orders of magnitude less than a cannon shell or guided missile costs, and even cheaper than the cost of the targets the LaWS would probably be pointed at -- enemy drones, boats, warplanes, and anti-ship missiles. This raises the very real possibility that developing this new space-age weapons system could actually lower the cost of U.S. defense spending, rather than increase it.
Further research will be needed, of course, to grow the weapon to its full potential. According to wired.com, for example, the current version of LaWS is believed to be incapable of generating a laser beam of even 100 kilowatts. It's plenty hot enough to kill a flimsy drone, but probably not robust enough to take down a full-sized warplane or anti-ship missile just yet. Ultimately, the military would really like to build a laser gun capable of transmitting a full megawatt of energy -- probably tapping into a ship's power system to get the necessary juice. Once that's accomplished, however, the resulting beam would be hot enough to burn through 20 feet of steel in a second and dispatch most targets it might be pointed at in mere nanoseconds.
How to invest in it
Many companies are involved in the race to develop a workable laser gun. Witness the now-defunct team effort among Boeing (NYSE:BA), Northrop Grumman (NYSE:NOC), Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT), and Raytheon (NYSE:RTN) to build a flying laser gun a few years back. In the instant case, though, Raytheon is said to be providing the sensors that guide the LaWS to its target, while Northrop is helping to develop the actual laser.
Best of all, all four companies helping to make military laser guns a reality currently sell for forward P/E ratios of between about 10 and 12 and pay dividends of anywhere from 2.3% (Boeing) to 4.9% (Lockheed Martin). And you don't need a laser to point out that these prices are cheap.
Fool contributor Rich Smith has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Raytheon. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.