http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=awsQs4ct0c4 What's the News: In a demonstration near California's San Nicholas Island last Wednesday, scientists with the U.S. Navy tested a laser weapon aboard the USS Paul Foster by shooting a 15-kilowatt beam at an inflatable boat from a mile away, causing the outboard engines to burst into flames. It was the world's first successful water-test of a high-energy laser. "I spent my life at sea," Rear Adm. Nevin Carr told Wired, "and I never thought we'd see this kind of progress this quickly, where we're approaching a decision of when we can put laser weapons on ships." What's the Context:
In solid-state lasers, like the one in the test, the special component used to amplify light to produce a powerful and coherent beam is, as the name implies, a solid.
Even though these lasers have been tested on land before, this maritime test is a big deal because it means that moist sea air, which can dampen the strength of lasers, doesn't render the laser ineffective---at least, not always.
This latest successful test comes less than three years after the U.S. Navy awarded global security company Northrop Grumman a $98 million contract to develop a sea-worthy laser weapon.
The military first started testing laser weapons in the 1970s, when most were chemical-based lasers that "tended to produce dangerous waste gasses." Laser weapons are meant to supplement traditional ammunition (not replace it), providing the Navy with more options in maritime warfare.
Not So Fast: As the video makes clear, this laser is not an Iron Man-type of blow-up-a-battleship affair---just a big laser that makes one spot really hot. The Navy still needs to develop maneuvers, tactics, and procedures for laser-based warfare before you'll see the average destroyer equipped with laser weapons. The Future Holds: Expect laser-lugging Navy ships in the next decade. And when free electron lasers come on board, expect lasers that pack even more punch, upwards of 100 kilowatts of power.