Whoever wins the upcoming presidential election, by halfway through the new term the Commander-in-Chief could be wielding a new weapon straight out of science fiction: laser cannons.
That's how close the U.S. Navy is to being able to field the first generation of "directed energy" weapons aboard ships, according to Rear Adm. Matthew Klunder, the chief of the Office of Naval Research. Klunder made the claim Monday to WIRED.com's Danger Room, which has been following the development of the futuristic laser arsenal.
Earlier this year Klunder's office had said the Navy was four years away from mounting the laser weapons, but he told WIRED Monday that recent tests had been "very successful" and the Navy has figured out physics issues that plagued early concepts.
"We're well past physics," he said. "We're just going through the integration efforts… Hopefully that tells you we're well mature, and we're ready to put these on naval ships."
The weapons are designed to track and fire on threats to a warship that could include anything from armed drones and small "swarm" boats to incoming missiles and aircraft.
In April 2011 the Navy released a video of a test in which its prototype Maritime Laser Demonstrator blasted a hole in the engine of a small boat at sea off the California coast, leaving it dead in the water.
A year later, an officer in the Solid-State Laser Technology Maturation (SSL-TM) program said the Navy believed it was " time to move forward with solid-state lasers and shift the focus from limited demonstrations to weapon prototype development and related technology advancement."
Solid-state lasers are one of several types of laser-based weapons systems currently under development by the Navy and other military services in conjunction with several major defense contractors. A recent Congressional report on the Navy's laser program noted that such devices could be "ready for installation" in "the next few years," but it criticized the Navy for not yet developing a procurement plan or a roadmap for installing the weapons on specific ships.
The military has spent hundreds of millions on the development of the various systems, but once they're installed, the government predicts that they would be relatively cheap to operate, considering they're not using conventional munitions. The Congressional report estimates that it will cost the Navy the equivalent of less than a dollar per shot to use the laser weapons versus, say, short-range air-defense interceptor missiles that generally cost around $800,000 to $1.4 million each.