Wired Danger Room – Within four years, the US Navy claims they’ll have a working prototype of a laser cannon, ready to place aboard a ship. And they’re just months away from inviting defense contractors to bid on a contract to build it for them.
“Subsonic cruise missiles, aircraft, fast-moving boats, unmanned aerial vehicles” — Mike Deitchman, who oversees future weapons development for the Office of Naval Research, promises Danger Room that the Navy laser cannons just over the horizon will target them all. After the Office of Naval Research can prove the prototype works, it’ll recommend the Navy start buying the laser guns.
For over a decade, it’s dreamed of creating a massive, scalable laser weapon, called the Free Electron Laser, that can generate up to a megawatt’s worth of blast power. Currently, the laser blasts 14 kilowatts of light — think 140 lamps, all shining in the same direction and at the same wavelength. A hundred kilowatts is considered militarily useful; a megawatt beam would burn through 20 feet of steel in a single second.
The Free Electron Laser has its critics, including a Senate committee. And it was sucking up all the oxygen inside the Navy’s laser efforts. As InsideDefense.com first reported, ONR decided, effectively, to break them up into the laser equivalent of weight classes. Generating a 100-kilowatt beam is now the province of “solid state lasers,” lasers that focus light through a solid gain medium, like a crystal or a optical fibers. The Free Electron Laser, which uses magnets to generate its beam, will stay focused on getting up to a megawatt.
That, the Navy’s scientists contend, will get an actual, working laser cannon onto a ship faster. Yes, a 100-kilowatt laser isn’t as powerful as the longed-for megawatt gun. And yes, a solid-state laser can’t operate on multiple wavelengths, while a Free Electron Laser can, making the mega-laser more useful when the sea air is full of crud and pollution. But the Office of Naval Research says that lots of active, near-term threats to ships will be vulnerable to the 100-kilowatt, solid state laser.
There’s another advantage to developing a less-powerful laser first. The Navy’s surface ships don’t yet have the power generation necessary for spooling up a megawatt-class laser — or at least not if they don’t want to potentially be dead in the water. That’s one of the reasons the Senate Armed Services Committee is skeptical of the Free Electron Laser. It’s not clear that the ships can cope with diverting 100 kilowatts of power, either, but the Office of Naval Research thinks they can, and the laser geeks are “working closely” with the Naval Sea Systems Command to make sure the scientists are writing checks that the ship’s generators can cash.