Boeing: Raygun dreadnoughts will rule the oceans by 2019
Missiles, laser sharks simply nowhere
US aerospace mammoth Boeing has made a bold announcement, saying that it will "transform naval warfare in the next decade" by developing powerful warship raygun turrets able to blast enemy missiles and aircraft out of the sky from afar.
The arms globocorp said yesterday that it has been awarded an initial $6.9m contract in a deal potentially worth as much as $169m, to develop a prototype Free Electron Laser (FEL) beam cannon.
Boeing say that this will provide an "ultra-precise, speed-of-light capability and unlimited magazine depth to defend ships against new, challenging threats, such as hyper-velocity cruise missiles", and that "FELs are capable of achieving the megawatt power the Navy requires for ship defense".
"It will be a cornerstone of the Navy's plan to incorporate directed energy systems into its future all-electric ship architecture," adds Boeing missile-buster veep Greg Hyslop.
This is impressive stuff. The existing, jumbo-jet mounted Airborne Laser  - shortly to enter flight tests, though with its future now highly uncertain - is said to offer "megawatt class" power, and to be capable of exploding liquid-fuelled ICBMs from as far off as 400km. It runs on dangerous toxic chemicals, however, meaning that its magazine capacity is severely limited.
Boeing now say that they will produce a megawatt blaster cannon able to run on electricity (FELs work by passing electrons through magnetic fields). Thus, it would presumably be able to blast missiles or planes out to at least a hundred miles or so, as soon as they appeared above the horizon - the more so as FELs are tunable, better able to cope with spray, clouds and the like.
Even better, the US Navy plans its next generation of warships to use electric transmissions for their propellors, meaning that the whole mighty power of their engines could be used by electrical weapon systems on occasion (at the cost of briefly losing propulsion). The proposed Zumwalt class destroyers, for instance, would have up to 80 megawatts available - enough to run several FEL raygun turrets, even at the low efficiencies typical of directed energy weapons.
That sort of thing would indeed transform naval surface warfare, where at the moment aircraft and ship-killer missiles are king. If an enemy can get close enough to send a volley of supersonic sea-skimmers in over the horizon at your fleet (in other words, if you don't control the skies with airborne radar and fighters), then you're in trouble. You just have to pray that interceptor missiles will be able to achieve head-on kills at closing speeds in excess of Mach 5, within metres of the wave tops and within seconds of getting a radar lock on the sea-skimmers: a risky and very expensive proposition.
We're looking at some sort of shark/electric-eel crossbreed here, obviously
But if you had a raygun Zumwalt, things would be very different. Enemies wouldn't dare poke their heads over the horizon inside a hundred miles. They'd have serious trouble getting their sea-skimmers into striking range, and if they manage it, no matter. As soon as a supersonic ship-killer pops up on radar - say twenty miles and thirty seconds out - a megawatt beam will fry it out of existence.
Goodbye sea-skimmers: perhaps even goodbye aircraft carriers. The preferred means of reaching over the horizon from ships might rather become the use of hypersonic solid shot from electric railguns , perhaps - far more able to penetrate laser defences than thin-skinned missiles packed full of explosive fuel and warhead, and significantly faster too.
The surface warship would be restored to its lost dominance over the oceans, in fact - within ten years from now! You can see why this is an easy sell to large parts of the US Navy.
But. Even Boeing admit that they've been fooling about with FELs for decades without really getting anywhere - let alone up to megawatt power. There's worrying talk of the new FEL being used for "non-lethal effects", too, which in this context translates as "it won't have anything even close to megawatt power, but you could use it for scaring pirates in skiffs, or making tea or something".
Also the Zumwalt class has lately been deferred - very likely cancelled altogether, in favour of more ordinary Arleigh Burke missile ships.
So no, actually. We almost certainly won't see command of the seas enforced by raygun battlewagons in a 2019 timescale. This is, pretty much for sure, just corporate puffery by Boeing - if of an interesting sort. ®
We almost forgot to mention the obvious FEL cranial-mount application for sharks. The great problem here, apart from likely weight and waterproofing issues with the laser itself, is of course the lack of any serious electrical supplies onboard the average shark. Megawatt range (several thousand horsepower) snorkel diesels would presumably be OK, as the shark would only be able to use its laser with its head out of the water anyway. One has to say, though, that this system would really be more like a raygun U-boat with a largely gratuitous shark attached.
Perhaps some kind of genetically-modified mutant shark/electric eel crossbreed abomination, with in-body megawatt electrocyte banks , might be in order.