Laser warfare takes to the high seas

Laser warfare takes to the high seas

Summary: A new type of laser weapon system touted as the holy grail of military lasers took a step closer to reality last week when Boeing Directed Energy Systems announced the successful completion of the initial design of the U.S. Navy's Free Electron Laser (FEL).

TOPICS: Tech Industry

A new type of laser weapon system touted as the holy grail of military lasers took a step closer to reality last week when Boeing Directed Energy Systems announced the successful completion of the initial design of the U.S. Navy's Free Electron Laser (FEL).

Credit: John Adams Institute

The shipboard FEL will focus a lethal 100-kilowatt beam at surface and air threats, future anti-ship cruise missiles or a swarm of small boats.  FELs are electrically generated so can draw on the power of the ship to provide a virtually unlimited magazine with speed-of light delivery for a wide range of missions. In this way, it will provide U.S. ships with a more powerful means of self-defense.

"The successful completion of this preliminary design review is an important milestone in developing a weapon system that will transform naval warfare," said Gary Fitzmire, vice president and program director of Boeing Directed Energy Systems.

For it to become real, however, will require several milestones. The Navy's design approval is a key step toward building an FEL prototype for realistic tests at sea. The next step is for Boeing to detail the design and build the system, which is expected to cost $163 million.  Future considerations include ship integration and beam control. As Wired puts it;  "the future Navy will need a fleet of futuristic, fully electric ships that generate enough power for these next-generation weapons."

There is no date pegged for when it will appear in active service.

What is a Free Electron Laser?

FELs have the widest frequency range of any laser type and provide intense beams that can be tuned to a precise wavelength, a capability not shared with conventional lasers. This is because conventional lasers are limited in the wavelength of light they emit by the source of the electrons (such as a gas or crystal) used within the laser. In the FEL, electrons are stripped from their atoms and then whipped up to high energies by a linear accelerator. The lasing medium moves freely through a magnetic structure, hence the term free electrons. And the wavelength of the light emitted can be readily tuned by adjusting the energy of the electron beam or the magnetic field strength of the undulators.

Here is the vision from the Office of Naval Research:

This revolutionary technology allows for multiple payoffs to the war fighter. The ability to control the strength of the beam provides for graduated lethality, and the use of light vice, an explosive munition, provides for low per engagement and life cycle costs. In fact, it provides an effective alternative to using expensive missiles against low value targets. Not worrying about propulsion and working at the speed of light allows for precise engagement and the resulting low collateral damage. Speed-of-light engagement also allows for a rapid reaction to moving and/or swarming time critical and swarming targets.

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Topic: Tech Industry

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  • Laser weapons are the future

    This a really great advancement for today's navy. Developing new ships should not be to great a problem since nuclear power has been around on aircraft carriers and subs for generations. Deploying free electron lasers on aircraft carriers should not be to much of a problem. This gives them the ability to defend against China's anti-ship missile.

    High power solid state lasers are advancing quickly as well. Recently a prototype 100 KW laser diode was tested.
    • The future is almost here

      The design of the next generation of US Navy Aircraft carriers (after the
      Nimitz class) that are being built now incorporates three nuclear
      reactors. The Nimitz class only has two.

      The only reason a third nuclear reactor is required is for additional
      electrical power above and beyond what is required today.

      Guess how the Navy will utilize that additional electricity? One guess is
      all you get.
  • Star wars laser battles

    Some of the best new breakthroughs in history have started
    with big machinery ( look at our computers :) ) and then have
    reduced their size to be used by common people. Through
    nano technology we are getting closer to have our own
    personal laser guns (no bullets). Is this getting to be a bit like
    Star Wars laser guns or lightsaber? hehehe this should be cool
    to see...
    • Lasers?

      A crude weapon from a less civilized age

  • Can you put one on a shark?

    Fricking laser headed sharks...!
    • LOL! (nt)

      John Zern
    • Best post in the history of ZDnet

      "laser headed sharks"

      'nuff said.
  • RE: Laser warefare takes to the high seas

    "touted as the holy grail of military lasers"
    Hmmmm. So as long as something is top line, it can be compared to the grail, a story I thought kind of acknowledged Jesus was most admired for kindness to the poor and our neighbors--and for humility.
    A holy grail of easy death. Maybe you got it off a Pentagon psa but come on...surely you can do better than that.
    Sarah Sarai
    • Actually, Jesus was traditionally admired for his act

      of taking on the sins of mankind and redeeming them from hell. After he
      took a whip and purged the temple.

      It's our current culture of love=permissiveness that has tossed out those
      particular "uncomfortable" aspects of Jesus.
  • Cautions

    1) If they're stripping massive numbers of electrons from atoms, what do they expect to do with all the remaining protons? They can't just store them, and large numbers of charged particles will eventually eat through pretty much anything.

    2) Regarding countermeasures, it seems mirrors would be pretty effective and low cost. I'd hate to fire a 100kw laser at someone and find out they were packing mirrors!

    3) One major problem for laser weapons on a battle field is smoke!

    4) A lot of these futuristic weapons sound great in theory but they're not practical. During the Gulf War they made it sound like Patriot missiles worked great. They pointed out that they had been developing them since the Fifties. After the war it eventually came out that they had only managed to knock down a handful of missiles and even after more than three decades of development in most cases in real-world use they missed their targets.
    • Science lesson

      1. They aren't stripping the electrons from hydrogen atoms, but
      various easily ionized compounds, so you have free electrons and
      ionized atoms. Both easily containable with magnetic fields. When you
      turn off the laser, the electrons recombine with the ions to produce
      neutral atoms.

      2. Mirrors reflect over a pretty narrow band of wavelengths. Shine a
      targeting laser and tune the frequency until you're outside the mirror's
      range, then let go with your full blast.

      3. Smoke is not opaque to all frequencies of light. Again, tune the

      Finally, if the navy can make a FEL fire pulses instead of a continuous
      beam, you will have a truly destructive weapon on your hands.
      • I agree - The pulsed laser

        I agree with you - the idea of using a pulsed
        laser would really increase the 'punch capability'
        of the laser.

        BTW: good explanation.
    • Some Basic Physics, Missile Technology, and Naval Surface Warfare

      High energy charged particles form a plasma:

      Charged particles accelerated in a magnetic field produce an electrical field. That is the basis of an electric motor:

      In this case, the system design passes high-energy elctrons through a magnetic field to produce high-energy light emissions:

      2) No mirror is perfect. Every mirror reflects part of any radiation hitting it and absorbs the rest. Extremely reflective surfaces are confined to relatively small objects - such as mirrors for astronomomy - and are extremely expensive to produce. Polishing the entire surface of an anti-ship ballistic or cruise missile as a countermeasure for lasers is not cost-effective. The goal of ballistic and cruise anti-ship missile defense does not even need to be destruction of the missile airframe. Jamming or damaging the guidance system is sufficient.

      3) Smoke is not a factor in anti-ship ballistic and cruise missile defense.

      4) The Patriot missile system began development in 1964 and entered production in 1972. The early Patriot systems had a serious system flaw in the weapons control system that accumulated a timing error the longer the system operated. The timing error resulted in incorrect calculations of the range gate, resulting in the radar looking for targets in the wrong place. That was fixed with new software in 1991.

      The Patriot missiles themselves went through Pac-2, Pac-2 GEM, and PAC-2 GEM+ versions. Each successive version brought improvements in missile intercept capabilities, though there isn't any doubt that the earlier PAC-2 versions had limitations. The newest version is PAC-3 and is much more capable than its predecessors.

      The Patriot is an Army system. The Navy has Aegis with Standard II and Enhanced Sea Sparrow missiles.

      The problem of successfully prosecuting a missile intercept with a target and missile closing at Mach 5 to Mach 6 is extremely challenging. The US Army would probably have received a better system had they started with the same company the Navy used.
  • Austin Powers

    So Austin Powers' bad guys were way ahead of his time. Testing it on sharks. Groovy!
  • fully electrically powered ships unrealistic

    EMP from nuclear explosions plays havoc with electricity.
    sparkle farkle
    • No, EMP plays havoc with unshielded electrical circuits

      it's an important difference. The interesting thing is, it's very easy to
      shield against EMP. Enclose your delicate stuff in a faraday cage.
      • EMP

        Interesting article at
        another on EMI at
        or just go to and do a search on EMP
    • Yes and no.

      <i>EMP from nuclear explosions plays havoc with electricity.</i>

      What it really wreaks havoc on is electrical generation and distribution equipment such as generators and switching circuits. The currents induced by EMP fry circuits because the current is moving in directions and/or at voltages that the circuitry is not designed to handle.

      The destruction can be mitigated and/or avoided by 'hardening' the gear. That is, the equipment can be made to handle the possibility of currents flowing in directions or at voltages other than those under which the equipment operates normally. Or as frgouh pointed out, you can surround your gear in a Faraday cage. The skin of a ship makes a pretty good Faraday cage, but it isn't perfect as it most likely is also the ground for most gear.

      The US Navy hardens their vessels against EMP precisely because they might actually face an EMP attack.

      Of course that hardening can be overcome by making the EMP even larger. But if you're going to do that, the thermal and blast effects will probably be of more concern.
    • Not true

      It would have no affect at all on many of the electrical power circuits in a ship. Electronics can be affected but a frough points out it is possible to shield them with a faraday cage and/or harden the circuits themselves. And the hull of most large ships would make a pretty good shield.

      The affects of EMP can be two fold:
      1) temporary - in this case the circuit is not damaged and may or may not be reset. This makes the affects of EMP only temporary for a short time making EMP impractical.

      2) permanent in that actual damage is done to the circuit. I think for many military applications this would require a extremely strong EMP and again shielding could mitigate it.
    • This Is An Example Why

      Basic physics needs to be taught in high school.

      The other replies to the above post soundly refute it.