One of the most critical questions in the world of seagoing death-ray technology today - that is, who would be selected to develop swivelling "R2-D2" robotic laser blaster gun turrets for US Navy warships - has now been answered. American weaponry megacorp Northrop Grumman, makers of the first electric solid-state "battle strength" raygun module, have scooped a $98m deal from the Office of Naval Research.
Under the deal, announced this week, Northrop will provide a demonstrator Maritime Laser system capable of being fitted to US warships of frigate size and up. In no more than 18 months, according to the deal, there will be "a real-time, 'at sea' dynamic demonstration showing a counter-material capability against small boats".
The ONR has previously said that raygun makers seeking to supply the Maritime Laser are highly encouraged to use existing gun mounts suitable for the task, such as that of the Phalanx radar-controlled gatling autocannon - nicknamed "R2-D2" among US sailors.
The Phalanx is sufficiently quick and accurate that it can blast incoming missiles and aircraft from the sky, let alone comparatively slow-moving small boats from the water. Such boats, attacking in swarms, are generally considered a likelier naval threat than shipkiller missiles, but even so it isn't immediately clear what a laser turret really brings to the party at sea.
Phalanxes are also nowadays used ashore on occasion, however, blasting rockets and mortars lobbed over the perimeter fences of US and allied bases by local insurgents. Special ammo with a time delay self-destruct fuse is used so as to avoid peppering the entire neighbourhood with 20mm cannon shells, but even so dangerous shrapnel and duds get scattered about fairly freely.
A laser would have no such problem, so a raygun Phalanx might indeed be useful if Northrop and the ONR can develop one. And there would be some lesser advantages at sea, too; a laser Phalanx wouldn't run out of ammo, and wouldn't use up space in the ship's magazines.
Current warships would seem well able to provide enough electricity for laser Phalanxes. FFG 7 Oliver Hazard Perry (OHP) class frigates, the smallest ships specified by the ONR, carry a single Phalanx. Northrop say their electric war-lasers are about 20 per cent efficient, so a 100 kilowatt battle-strength beam would tie up half a megawatt of generating capability. OHPs carry four 1-megawatt generators, so they should normally be able to supply enough juice.
Regrettably for those interested mainly in the related field of shark-portable energy weaponry for use in the disposal of meddling government agents, incompetent or traitorous henchmen etc, the technology isn't yet sufficiently mature for employment by normal sized lair-dwelling piscine enforcement operatives. There would in any case be significant risk of a distressing explosive mishap in the event of a poorly-trained or excitable pool shark inadvertently triggering its raygun with its head underwater.
Supervillains with genetic-engineering expertise among their henchmen or captives might opt for a gigantic mutated shark able to carry the necessary machinery, but this could necessitate costly lair and execution-pool enlargement. ®