WASHINGTON — A Northrop Grumman-built laser in April completed a series of tracking tests intended to pave the way for a sea-based demonstration of the envisioned weapon system, company officials said.

Northrop Grumman in July 2009 was awarded a contract from the U.S. Office of Naval Research worth as much as $98 million for the Maritime Laser Demonstration (MLD) program. The program is intended to demonstrate a prototype laser that could be deployed on Navy ships to defend against swarms of boats and other threats at ranges of a kilometer or more.

For the MLD program, Northrop Grumman is using one piece of a laser system it developed under the U.S. Army’s Joint High Power Solid State Laser program. Under that program, the company built eight 15-kilowatt solid-state lasers that could be combined to reach higher powers. Northrop Grumman needed only seven of the lasers to reach the program’s 100-kilowatt goal, and the extra laser has been transitioned to the Navy program, according to Dan Wildt, Northrop Grumman’s vice president for directed energy systems.

Last fall, Northrop Grumman fired the 15-kilowatt laser at targets at its San Juan Capistrano, Calif., test site. During the most recent tests at the Navy’s Port Hueneme, Calif., facilities, the system’s low-power targeting laser was used to track boats at sea.

“We took our maritime demonstration system to the shore and tracked a number of small boats in a realistic environment and demonstrated our ability to maintain the very precise pointing and precision required such that our excellent beam quality laser can be leveraged,” Wildt said in a July 29 interview.

“We have a separate laser that we use to illuminate the target. Then we take the return from that and we get an image of the target to put our crosshairs on and maintain it at the aim point,” he said. “We did not operate the high-power beam in this series of tests.”

Northrop Grumman is currently funded to complete two more tests: It will conduct another static fire of the high-power laser, then the laser will be taken to sea and used to counter a threat-representative target boat, said Jay Marmo, Northrop Grumman’s MLD program manager. Navy spokesman Peter Vietti in a July 30 statement declined to say how much money has been obligated to Northrop Grumman for the program so far, or when the next two tests are planned to take place.

The MLD program is one of a number of laser weapon systems under development at the Pentagon.

Under one program, for example, the Navy and Raytheon Co. recently used a laser to shoot down four unmanned aerial vehicles off the coast of California.

Though the United States has yet to use laser weapons on the battlefield, Wildt is confident that these types of systems will be deployed in the near future.

“There’s no doubt in my mind,” Wildt said. “The technology just continues to get better. It has great advantages of precision, the ability to have non-lethal effects, and a very low cost per shot. The ability to use this type of system in concert with other types of systems will save a tremendous amount of money for the service in its job of defending itself.”