PUBLISHED: 13:59 EST, 25 October 2012 | UPDATED: 13:59 EST, 25 October 2012
Once the stuff of science fiction and James Bond movies, the U.S. Navy is now just two years away from arming it’s ships with the first generation of ‘directed energy’ laser weapons.
The weapons are designed to track and fire on threats to a warship that could include anything from armed drones and small ‘swarm’ boats to incoming missiles and aircraft.
According to Rear Admiral Matthew Klunder, the chief of the Office of Naval Research, a series of successful tests in recent months have enabled the Navy to halve its predicted timeline for mounting laser weapons on vessels.
‘We’re well past physics,’ he told WIRED.com.
‘We’re just going through the integration efforts… Hopefully that tells you we’re well mature, and we’re ready to put these on naval ships.’
In April 2011 the Navy released a video of a test in which its prototype Maritime Laser Demonstrator blasted a hole in the engine of a small boat at sea off the California coast, leaving it dead in the water.
In July of this year, an officer in the Solid-State Laser Technology Maturation (SSL-TM) program said the Navy believed it was ‘time to move forward with solid-state lasers and shift the focus from limited demonstrations to weapon prototype development and related technology advancement.’
Solid-state lasers are one of several different types of laser-based weapons systems currently being developed by the Navy and other military services in conjunction with major defense contractors.
The military has spent hundreds of millions on the development of the various systems, but once installed, the government predicts they will be relatively cheap to operate since they don’t use conventional munitions.
A shot from a laser weapon is estimated to cost the Navy the equivalent of less than a dollar, compared to short-range air-defense interceptor missiles which cost between $800,000 and $1.4 million each.
Up until now one of the Navy’s key concerns with lasers has been how to generate enough energy to fill the laser gun’s magazine, however Klunder says that it is no longer an issue.
‘I’ve got the power,’ said Klunder, who spoke during the Office of Naval Research’s biennial science and technology conference.
‘I just need to know on this ship, this particular naval vessel, what are the power requirements, and how do I integrate that directed energy system or railgun system.’
With the technology almost now in place, there does however remain a concern over funding to make the laser weapons a reality. Admiral Mark Ferguson, vice chief of naval operations, has warned that ‘research and development is part of that reduction’ in defense budgets currently scheduled to take effect in January.
Video: Watch a prototype maritime laser blast a hole in the engine of a small boat