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A brief history of laser weapons (pictures)

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What the U.S. Navy really wants is a free electron laser — so much so that its contract with Boeing for a 100-kilowatt FEL lab demonstrator could be worth up to $163 million eventually.

In a FEL system (video), laser light is generated by sending high-energy electrons through a series of magnetic fields, and the resulting beam could be immensely powerful. And an important distinguishing characteristic is the ability to tune the beam to different wavelengths, which could help it better deal with the vagaries of the atmosphere at sea.

But right now, FEL systems are huge and inefficient, and practical systems are a long, long ways off. A report issued last spring by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington, D.C., think tank, said that it might not be until “the late 2020s” that we see ship-based FELs “with power outputs sufficient to interdict more hardened targets, including ballistic-missile reentry vehicles.”