When people say “ray guns,” you often think about sci-fi movies like Star Wars or Star Trek, maybe even those first-person shooter games.

Wherever you’ve heard them, the central focus of the weapon stays the same—it’s a gun that fires either a high energy beam, heat rays, or lasers. Oh, don’t pretend you haven’t imagined it in your head! We all know how fun it is to just think of the fun you’d have in some futuristic weapons hangar with some plasma rifles laying around. Maybe even a scary scenario if the Death Star’s super laser were to come to life in some form.

But for those who aren’t in the loop, the US military has been developing a laser weapon that can shoot down enemy drones and maybe even full-on high-powered weapons that can destroy vehicles and aircrafts alike!

The US Navy’s Ray Gun

Yup, you heard that right. The US Navy’s version of a ray gun comes in the form of the Counter-Unmanned Air Systems High Energy Laser Weapon System (or C-UAS HELWS). What does it do? It will be used to shoot down drones with a high-energy beam of light.

This is tremendous news for the Navy as drone warfare has seen a noticeable increase in use in recent years. With the usage of high-powered lasers to destroy these drones in an instant married to a targeting system that could take down 20 of them in a few seconds it be very hard for drone swarms to disable U.S. Navy ships at sea. If the Navy sought to build fast ships that functioned as floating laser batteries with nuclear reactors to power them, and 10-20 laser mounts aboard, you have the capability to protect whole Carrier Strike Groups from attack by drones, aircraft, and even hypersonic missiles.

Because lasers operate at the speed of light, there is virtually no travel time from the laser weapon toward the target. This means that they could reach targets in a matter of nanoseconds, and they can’t run out of ammunition unless they fry up their onboard power source. Even though their range is currently on the short side a fast target acquisition radar

In 2018, the MZA Associates Corp in Albuquerque, New Mexico, was awarded $18,697,835 to develop the weapon. According to the contract, it should be done between 2023 and 2025.

It was said that this new laser weapon would be about the same size and weight as a .50 caliber machine gun with a 10 kW laser, which would make it pretty portable hypothetically speaking. Due to its small size, it can be mounted on a military vehicle such as small as the Humvee or or boat patrols.  The bigger issue is the power requirement of a laser needing 60kW to maintain a firing charge.   The Navy wants to build 100-150 Kw lasers which will be very thirsty in terms of electric power. The higher the power the greater the range of the weapon with enough energy left in the beam to burn through objects in front of it.

That’s not all the Navy has been up to. Together with Lockheed Martin, they’ve developed the High Energy Laser with Integrated Optical-dazzler and Surveillance (HELIOS). It is a 60 kW laser that includes systems for surveillance, reconnaissance, and intelligence missions. The Navy can now possibly shoot down missiles with a more powerful weapon without spending a huge wad of cash for ammunition.

However, this isn’t the first time the US Navy has developed a laser gun. In 2014, the AN/SEQ-3 Laser Weapon System was mounted on the USS Ponce, which was authorized to use the weapon to destroy anything from drones, small boats, and even helicopters. The system in the video below is sighted optically with a joystick controler. This is fine for visual range targets moving at relatively slow speeds, but in order for these weapons to be useful against fast moving inbound missiles and aircraft it needs to be married to a radar fire control system to prioritize targets and quickly engage them at range, as the CWIS is capable of doing.

How does it work? It uses a 30,000-watt laser to burn through sensors, motors, and other vital components of a vehicle, aircraft, or boat.

The US Air Force isn’t one to get left behind. They’re also developing a new laser weapon—the Airborne High Energy Laser (AHEL). However, they did say that it would take longer to develop, with completion dates as far as 2030. This is because of the technical problems related to the huge electrical loads needed to power the laser versus the size of the aircraft generating that power.  The lens of the laser is also incredibly sensitive to dirt and debris getting on it, A bug on the lens would be superheated and burn the lens destroying it. There are also problems of temperature variations at high altitudes on the lens versus the heat of the laser. The heat hitting the lens when it’s -2o degrees at 30,000 feet would shatter it.

These technical issues notwithstanding, the U.S. is decades ahead of any peer militaries in terms of this technology. We may be the only country wealthy enough and advanced enough to even begin to develop it as a weapon.  Our work in this area may be related to Russia and China working to develop hypersonic missiles in the hope that 10-20 of them would be coming in too fast to be intercepted by a laser sending its pulse out at light speed, but these missiles have their own challenges to overcome.  China recently tested a missile that missed its target by 20 miles, which probably means they haven’t solved the problem of plasma forming around the missile at high speed that prevents it from receiving guidance signals from a ship, plane, or satellite in space.