U.S. Navy ships could one day knock down incoming missiles with energy weapons that never run out of shots, and tune themselves to slice through the ocean air.
On Monday, the Office of Naval Research awarded contracts to both Raytheon and Boeing worth an initial $6.9 million each for preliminary design work on a new free electron laser, or FEL. This model would be about seven times strong than any similar laser -- reaching up to 100 kilowatts, or weapons-grade. Eventually, that could pave the way for a directed-energy weapon that can replace the Navy's current system for close-in ship defense, the radar-guided Phalanx gun.
FELs have the great advantage of being tunable: you can change their output frequency with relative ease. This means you can adapt to the aerial conditions at least. Possibly even making it into a blue-green laser and allow it to travel through water to some degree (huh. Close in torpedo zapper?! huh.) This makes FELs a highly desirable weapon...except you need space and a lot of juice. Sounds like a navy ship to me!
That said, FELs are not easy things to master technologically. We've sunk a lot of money in it to get this far and we're just now getting on the cusp of weapon's grade lasers.