Here's where the US military is going to deploy its most advanced weaponry

Long relegated to the world of science fiction, lasers and rail guns are increasingly appearing in real life.

Rail guns use electromagnets to fire projectiles at supersonic speeds, while lasers fire pure energy bursts.

In 2012, the US Navy test-fired a rail gun for the first time and later announced plans to put one on the guided-missile destroyer USS Zumwalt.

In 2014, the Navy mounted and tested a laser on the USS Ponce, an amphibious transport dock, successfully taking out the engine of a small inflatable boat containing a rocket-propelled grenade.

The USS Ponce. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Ian M. Kummer.

The USS Ponce. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Ian M. Kummer.

More recently, the US Army successfully tested a laser mounted on an Apache helicopter, and the Air Force is planning to put lasers on AC-130s.

Despite these many successful tests, the two weapons aren’t currently operational, Bob Freeman, a spokesman for the Office of Naval Research, told Business Insider, notwithstanding CNN’s recent story claiming that the laser aboard the Ponce is “ready to be fired at targets today and every day by Capt. Christopher Wells and his crew.”

The laser aboard the Ponce is “not the final product,” Freeman said. It is a low-energy laser that has been tested to shoot down drones. If the Ponce is threatened, they’ll still use conventional weapons.

So questions remain about when the weapons will be operational, how they will be used, and which will be used more.

USS Ponce conducts an operational demonstration of the Office of Naval Research-sponsored Laser Weapon System. Navy photo by John F. Williams.

USS Ponce conducts an operational demonstration of the Office of Naval Research-sponsored Laser Weapon System. Navy photo by John F. Williams.

“They both have unique capabilities,” but, Freeman said, “it seems to me you have less options with rail guns.”

Lasers have more capabilities in that they can be set to different energy levels, giving the operators the option to deter or take out targets.

For example, if a US ship perceives an aircraft as a threat, “you can put [the laser] on low-power and scintillate the cockpit” and make the pilot turn around, Freeman said. He wasn’t exactly sure what the enemy pilot would experience but said he or she would see the laser and probably wouldn’t be injured.

USS Ponce conducts an operational demonstration of the Office of Naval Research-sponsored Laser Weapon System. Navy photo by John F. Williams.

USS Ponce conducts an operational demonstration of the Office of Naval Research-sponsored Laser Weapon System. Navy photo by John F. Williams.

Or, if needed, the operators could turn the energy levels up and destroy the enemy target, either by melting precision holes through the craft or “cutting across” it, he said.

High-energy lasers, he added, are “still in development.”

But for larger targets, such as enemy ships, rail guns would probably be the best weapon.

“It packs a punch … and can go through steel walls,” Freeman said.

One of the two electromagnetic railgun prototypes on display aboard the joint high speed vessel USS Millinocket. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kristopher Kirsop.

One of the two electromagnetic rail gun prototypes on display aboard the joint high speed vessel USS Millinocket. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kristopher Kirsop.

Once they are both operational, the US military will use them along with conventional weapons, and it’ll take years of evolution for one to make the other, or even conventional weapons, obsolete, Freeman said.

“They both have challenges to go through,” he told Business Insider, including where to get the power needed to fuel them. But they also offer other benefits in addition to their lethality: They’re cheaper and can even be safer for sailors, as they don’t require stores of ammunition that can explode.

As for exact tactics regarding how and when to use rail guns and lasers, the Navy and other branches employing them will decide once they’re operational, Freeman said.

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