Vid US Navy boffins last week carried out their first test of a raygun mounted on a warship, using the beam to blast a small rigid-inflatable boat and set its engines on fire.
The boat-blaster trial comes as part of the Maritime Laser Demonstrator (MLD) programme run by the US Office of Naval Research (ONR). It took place near San Nicholas Island, off the coast of California in the Pacific Ocean. The laser was mounted onto the deck of a naval self-defence test ship, retired from active service as destroyer USS Paul Foster.
“This is the first time a High Energy Laser, 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,” said Peter Morrison, program officer for the MLD warship raygun project.
Though this test used a relatively unimpressive 15-kilowatt laser, the technology involved draws on the previous Joint High Power Solid State Laser programme. Under JHPSSL, 15-kW units were developed which can be linked in a "chain" to provide beams of more than 100kW power. A hundred kilowatts is the usual, arbitrary baseline at which a laser is seen as a genuine combat weapon rather than, say, a less-lethal alternative to conventional cannon or guns.
Future 100kW+ raygun turrets might zap incoming shells or missiles out of the air, hitting with lightspeed precision as soon as the target rose above the horizon. This might offer an improvement on current close-in-defence robot cannon installations such as the well-known Phalanx, which can shoot down incoming missiles but must let them come distressingly close before doing so - and which may run out of ammo at a critical moment, too.
Hecakilowatt or megawatt-grade lasers might sweep the skies from horizon to horizon, reaching hundreds of miles through the air and up into space itself above their carrying warship. the only weapons able to penetrate such a shield might be massive hypersonic solid slugs shot from warship-mounted railguns, so fast (and so unresponsive to lasers' heating) as to be impervious to raygun beams.
Such technologies might one day see the aircraft carrier dethroned as queen of the seas, and the big-gun dreadnought - now armed with railguns rather than massive 15-inch rifles, and armoured by lasers rather than feet-thick steel plates - restored once more to its lost dominion over the waves.
That's a long way off, though, as the vid above indicates all too well - and the ONR implicitly admits.
“From a science and technology point of view, the marriage of directed energy and kinetic energy weapon systems opens up a new level of deterrence into scalable options for the commander," says ONR boss Rear-admiral Navin Carr - effectively confirming that the idea is to tickle up pirates, smugglers, suicide boats etc with relatively gentle sizzle-beams as an alternative to blasting them to scrap with regular guns straight off. ®