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