U.S. Navy Developing Weaponized Lasers
I think the nerds might be in charge of the U.S. Navy these days. (Speaking as a nerd, I approve.) Not all that long ago, we reported on the Navy’s railgun prototype and now I’m to understand they want to put laser cannons on board ships as well. Suddenly I can’t help but to think of Macross.
A recent test fire of a low-power, 15 kilowatt laser managed to disable the motor on a moving target from over a mile. The Office of Naval Research (ONR) believes this shows that ship board lasers can work and, assuming the project gets the go-ahead, will start approaching potential manufacturers in the coming year.
While it’s certainly a step in the right direction, 15 kilowatts isn’t much of a deterrent. The ONR says that it would consider a 100 kilowatt laser to be an effective weapon. If researchers can figure out a way to boost that number to a megawatt, the laser could burn through 20 ft. of steel in a second.
The megawatt version of the Navy’s laser cannon would be a free electron laser, which uses magnets to create the potential death ray, whereas solid state lasers, which would fire the 100 kilowatt laser, use crystals or fiber optics. Solid state lasers would generally be useful for close ship defense (such as burning down incoming missiles), while the free electron laser would be more of a main gun type of weapon.
The solid-state laser will still deal with many asymmetric threats, but not the most hardened, most challenging threats. It’s near-to-mid term. The Free Electron Laser is still long-term. –Mike Deitchman, Office of Naval Research
As was the case with the railgun prototype, a serious problem with deploying high-powered lasers on a ship is the amount of power required to operate them. Current ship power output isn’t high enough to fire a laser while at the same time keeping other systems operational. Researchers at ONR are coordinating their efforts with Naval Sea Systems Command to make sure a laser cannon will have enough juice to fire.
Skeptics abound, including a Senate committee, but the Navy intends to keep pushing forward and says it expects to have an operational laser system in place in the next four years.
Below you’ll find a video about the Navy’s testing of laser weapons systems.