Some of the Navy's futuristic weapons sound like something out of Star Wars, with lasers designed to shoot down drones and electric guns that fire projectiles at hypersonic speeds. That future is now. The Navy plans to deploy its first laser on a ship later this year—a prototype so advanced that it can be operated by a single sailor—and it intends to test an electromagnetic rail gun prototype aboard a vessel within two years.
"It fundamentally changes the way we fight," says the Navy's program manager for directed energy and electric weapon systems. But for the Navy, it's not so much about the whiz-bang technology as it is about the economics of such armaments. Both cost pennies on the dollar compared with missiles and smart bombs, and the weapons can be fired continuously, unlike missiles and bombs, which eventually run out. Both systems have their drawbacks, however. Lasers tend to lose their effectiveness if it's raining, if it's dusty, or if there's turbulence in the atmosphere, and the rail gun, which can fire a projectile at up to seven times the speed of sound, requires vast amounts of electricity.