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Navy successfully tests prototype ocean-going laser weapon

From Charley Keyes, CNN Senior National Security Producer
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Navy has new laser weapon
  • The laser destroyed an outboard motor on a small boat more than a mile away, the Navy says
  • "We can really kind of get the attention of an attacking boat," a Navy research official says
  • Such a weapon could be used against pirates or suspected terrorists

Washington (CNN) -- Science fiction became science fact when the U.S. Navy barbecued an outboard motor off the coast of California.

This was no pleasure-boating mishap: It was the first successful test of a high-energy laser and proof that a weapon using that technology could protect Navy ships or immobilize pirates.

The laser, mounted on a Navy warship, was able to destroy an outboard motor on a small boat bobbing "more than a mile away," according to Michael Deitchman, director of air warfare and weapons at the Office of Naval Research. The Navy is carefully guarding specific details of last week's test but the video is a popular stop on YouTube. (Search for Maritime Laser Demonstration.)

"We can really, kind of, get the attention of an attacking boat," Deitchman said.

And the power of the laser can be adjusted for distance -- what the experts call "tune-ability" -- from just a bright light to a small hole in the bow to the destructive beam that torched the outboard motor in the test. A laser weapon could be used to disable pirate boats off the coast of Africa or to keep suspected terrorist vessels far away from Navy ships.

There has been talk about lasers since the middle of the 20th century and decades of research about how to make an effective weapon. Deitchman says the successful test proved to scientists with the Navy and Northrop Grumman that the technology has potential.

Previously, lasers had been tested either in the air or on land. The humidity and up-and-down swells of the Pacific introduced a whole new set of variables.

In this case, the laser was linked into what was already on board. "We were able to integrate into the existing tracking and targeting system," Deitchman said.

And this "proof of concept test" kicks the project along to Navy and Defense Department decision-makers who will decide whether to move ahead with additional tests and development.

"What we are doing is saying, 'Here's what's possible,' " Deitchman said.