US aerospace giant and one of the world's largest defence contractors, Boeing Co, has said it will "transform naval warfare in the next decade" by developing powerful warship ray guns which will blast enemy missiles and aircraft out of the sky over large distances.
Boeing said Friday it had been awarded an initial $6.9 million contract in a deal potentially worth as much as $169 million, to develop a prototype Free Electron Laser (FEL) beam cannon.
According to Boeing, it 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," said Boeing vice president Greg Hyslop.
The announcement by Boeing comes even as its existing, jumbo-jet mounted Airborne Laser is shortly due to enter flight tests. The programme's future, however, is now highly uncertain in the light of budget cuts being planned by the new Obama administration.
The airborne laser programme is said to offer "megawatt class" power, and to be capable of exploding ICBMs from as far off as 400 km. The problem is that it operates with chemicals and so has limited firing power.
With the FEL programme, Boeing says that it will produce power in megawatts allowing the ray gun to target missiles and planes hundreds of miles away. The ray guns will run on electricity that will be produced by passing electrons through magnetic fields. The ray gun are also tunable weapons that will be able to deal with incidental situation such as cloud cover, sea spray etc.
With the US Navy requiring its next generation warships to provide electric transmissions for their propellors, the power of these engines could be used by electrical weapon systems on occasion, even though they would retard propulsion briefly.