Last week, the U.S. Navy showed just how serious they were about developing laser weaponry by zapping a boat.
Military researchers were testing a solid-state, high-energy laser or HEL at a spot off the coast of Central California. The 15 kW laser, which had been under development for two and a half years, was fired across a mile of open water from the deck of a Navy self-defense test ship formerly known as the USS Paul Foster.
Developing lasers for the Navy’s fleet of warships has been a challenge since beams tend to get absorbed or scattered by moisture in the atmosphere, which is a major reason why previous demonstrations of the technology were limited to land-based systems. But the successful (and did I mention videotaped?) testing of the HEL proved that ship-mounted electric lasers can be integrated into a navy ship’s radar and navigation system to incinerate enemy vessels at sea.
“This is the first time a HEL, at these power levels, has been put on a Navy ship, powered from that ship and used to defeat a target at-range in a maritime environment,” says Peter Morrison, program officer for the Office of Naval Research’s Maritime Laser Demonstrator program.
As you can see from the video, the beam doesn’t exactly obliterate targets as often portrayed in Star Wars movies, but instead focuses just enough energy to set the vessel ablaze. Chief of Naval Research Rear Adm. Nevin Carr says that while the laser should be effective against small ships that attack from a far-off distance, the technology will not replace traditional weapon systems.
For that, the Navy has been developing a megawatt-grade Free Electron Laser or FEL laser to shoot down bigger threats like aircraft and missiles. The weapon, often referred to as the “holy grail of lasers,” is based on a technology that allows it to be fired at frequencies unaffected by humidity and other environmental factors.
The Navy has invested $98 million dollars to eventually scale up the HEL to 100 kW, while $163 million is being spent in hopes of delivering a testable FEL prototype by 2018.
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