What’s the News: In a demonstration near California’s San Nicholas Island last Wednesday, scientists with the U.S. Navy tested a laser weapon aboard the USS Paul Foster by shooting a 15-kilowatt beam at an inflatable boat from a mile away, causing the outboard engines to burst into flames. It was the world’s first successful water-test of a high-energy laser. “I spent my life at sea,” Rear Adm. Nevin Carr told Wired, “and I never thought we’d see this kind of progress this quickly, where we’re approaching a decision of when we can put laser weapons on ships.”
What’s the Context:
- In solid-state lasers, like the one in the test, the special component used to amplify light to produce a powerful and coherent beam is, as the name implies, a solid.
- Even though these lasers have been tested on land before, this maritime test is a big deal because it means that moist sea air, which can dampen the strength of lasers, doesn’t render the laser ineffective—at least, not always.
- This latest successful test comes less than three years after the U.S. Navy awarded global security company Northrop Grumman a $98 million contract to develop a sea-worthy laser weapon.
- The military first started testing laser weapons in the 1970s, when most were chemical-based lasers that “tended to produce dangerous waste gasses.” Laser weapons are meant to supplement traditional ammunition (not replace it), providing the Navy with more options in maritime warfare.
- Solid-state lasers have been used to shoot down drones in the past and laser-bearing jumbo jets have shot down missiles.
Not So Fast: As the video makes clear, this laser is not an Iron Man-type of blow-up-a-battleship affair—just a big laser that makes one spot really hot. The Navy still needs to develop maneuvers, tactics, and procedures for laser-based warfare before you’ll see the average destroyer equipped with laser weapons.
The Future Holds: Expect laser-lugging Navy ships in the next decade. And when free electron lasers come on board, expect lasers that pack even more punch, upwards of 100 kilowatts of power.