Thinking Tech

Navy's futuristic weapons a target for budget cuts

Posting in Energy

Congress cut funding for the development of a hypersonic railgun and the free electron laser (FEL), the navy's two prized weapons of the future.

You know the government is mired in a serious budget crisis when a military agency like the Navy is asked to scrap some of it's most highly prized weapon's programs.

That's exactly what happened earlier this month when the Senate Armed Services Committee voted to abruptly cut funding for the development of a hypersonic railgun and the free electron laser (FEL), a pair of work-in-progress weapons projects that the Office of Naval Research was investing heavily in.

The staunchest supporter of the projects is Nevin Carr, the chief of Naval Research, who has touted them as game-changers in the making. As an alternatives to missiles, the railgun would give ships the ability to blast targets from hundreds of miles away in mere minutes while the free electron laser allows shipmen to shoot down attacking missiles coming simultaneously from several different directions. In interviews, he spoke of why he felt the continued development of these weapons were crucial in future warfare.

Here's a brief snippet from a report in Wired:

Both weapons are apples in the eye of the Office of Naval Research, the mad scientists of the Navy. “We’re fast approaching the limits of our ability to hit maneuvering pieces of metal in the sky with other maneuvering pieces of metal,” its leader, Rear Adm. Nevin Carr, told me in February. The answer, he thinks, is hypersonics and directed energy weapons, hastening “the end of the dominance of the missile,” Adm. Gary Roughead, the top officer in the Navy, told me last month. With China developing carrier-killer missiles and smaller missiles proliferating widely, both weapons would allow the Navy to blunt the missile threat and attack adversaries from vast distances.

Whatever the reason why congress decided to eliminate the projects, it surely wasn't due to a lack of progress. In January, FEL researchers successfully tested an important component known as an injector, which is used to produce the type of electrons necessary to generate megawatt laser beams. And tests on the hypersonic railgun consistently shattered records.

[To learn more about these technologies, check out my in-depth report on the Hypersonic Railgun and the Free Electron Laser.]

The reaction from Navy officials thus far can be best described as diplomatic, although they've clearly indicated that they're not giving up on the projects without a fight.

“The programs were part of the president’s budget and we hope to see them in the final bill,” says Lt. Cmdr. Justin Cole, told Wired's Danger Room. “We will continue to work with Congress to answer any questions they may have about the programs in an effort to secure authorization and funding for their continuation.”

And after catching a glimpse of these promotional videos, you'll also see why.

(via Wired)

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Tuan Nguyen

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Tuan C. Nguyen is a freelance science journalist based in New York City. He has written for the U.S. News and World Report, Fox News, MSNBC, ABC News, AOL, Yahoo! News and LiveScience. Formerly, he was reporter and producer for the technology section of ABCNews.com. He holds degrees from the University of California Los Angeles and the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure