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Navy Shows Off Powerful New Laser Weapon

  • The Maritime Laser Demonstration program will create a laser gun capable of targeting moving boats, unmanned aircraft, and even incoming missiles.Northrop Grumman

  • The Navy set fire to a bobbing and weaving boat with a laser gun mounted to a cruiser in 2011 -- a first-of-its-kind test that moved the prototype closer to reality.ONR

One if by land … lasers if by sea.

A futuristic laser mounted on a speeding cruiser successfully blasted a bobbing, weaving boat from the waters of the Pacific Ocean -- the first test at sea of such a gun and a fresh milestone in the Navy's quest to reoutfit the fleet with a host of laser weapons, the Navy announced Friday.

"We were able to have a destructive effect on a high-speed cruising target," chief of Naval research Rear Adm. Nevin Carr told FoxNews.com. 

The test occurred Wednesday near San Nicholas Island, off the coast of Central California in the Pacific Ocean test range, from a laser gun mounted onto the deck of the Navy’s self-defense test ship, former USS Paul Foster. 

In a video of the event, the small boat can be seen catching fire and ultimately bursting into flames, a conflagration caused by the navy's distant gun. Some details of the event were classified, including the exact range of the shot, but Carr could provide some information: "We're talking miles, not yards," Carr said.

The Navy, Army and other armed forces have been working to incorporate so called "directed energy" laser weapons in a range of new guns, from tank-mounted blasters to guns on planes or unmanned balloons. But this marks the first test of a laser weapon at sea -- and proof that laser rifles are no mere Buck Rogers daydream.

“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 Office of Naval Research.

"The Navy is moving strongly towards directed energy," Carr told FoxNews.com.

The weapon, called the maritime laser demonstrator, was built in partnership with Northrop Grumman. It focused 15 kilowatts of energy by concentrating it through a solid medium -- hence the name.

"We call them solid state because they use a medium, usually something like a crystal," explained Quentin Saulter, the research office's program officer. It was used in Wednesday's demonstration against a small boat, but Carr told FoxNews.com that this and other types of laser weaponry could be equally effective against planes and even targets on shore.

"To begin to address a cruise missile threat, we'd need to get up to hundreds of kilowatts," Carr said.

The Navy is working on just such a gun of course. 

Called the FEL -- for free-electron laser, which doesn't use a gain medium and is therefore more versatile -- it was tested in February consuming a blistering 500 kilovolts of energy, producing a supercharged electron beam that can burn through 20 feet of steel per second. 

The FEL will easily get into the kilowatt power range. It can also be easily tuned as well, to adjust to environmental conditions, another reason it is more flexible than the fixed wavelength of solid-state laser. But the Navy doesn't expect to release megawatt-class FEL weapons until the 2020s; among the obstacles yet to be overcome, the incredible power requirements of the FEL weapons require careful consideration.

Also in the Navy's futuristic arsenal: a so-called "rail gun," which uses an electomagnetic current to accelerate a non-explosive bullet at several times the speed of sound.

Railguns are even further off in the distance, possibly by 2025, the Navy has said. But the demonstration of the maritime laser demonstrator this week proves that some laser weapons are just around the corner: Northrop Grumman experts aim to have the final product ready by June of 2014.

"One of the things that amazes me about this business is that the future is getting closer every day," Carr said.

Jeremy A. Kaplan is Science and Technology editor at FoxNews.com, where he heads up coverage of gadgets, the online world, space travel, nature, the environment, and more. Prior to joining Fox, he was executive editor of PC Magazine, co-host of the Fastest Geek competition, and a founding editor of GoodCleanTech.