The U.S. navy expects to have its first laser weapon system mounted on a ship by next year, ready to destroy enemy targets at the speed of light -- and at a much lower cost than conventional weapons.

The U.S. navy announced the developments this week, saying the weapon would be deployed on the Austin-class USS Ponce in 2014, two years ahead of schedule.

A video demonstrating the laser's capability was posted to YouTube this week, showing a ship-mounted laser targeting and destroying a spy drone as it flies over the ocean at high speed.

The aircraft quickly catches fire once it is engaged by the laser and begins to break apart as it streaks towards the surface of the water, before crashing dramatically into the waves.

"The future is here," said Peter A. Morrison, program officer for the U.S. Office of Naval Research's Solid-State Laser Technology Maturation Program, in a statement. "The solid-state laser is a big step forward to revolutionizing modern warfare with directed energy, just as gunpowder did in the era of knives and swords."

The laser, powered by electricity generated by the ship's engine, works by forcing energy into the atoms of a crystal, then exciting the atoms and causing them to release light which is focused into a beam. That beam can be lethal to enemy targets.

The navy said lasers will improve its ability to strike out at a wide range of threats, from fleets of small vessels swarming a naval ship to unmanned aircraft.

"The advancing technology gives sailors a variety of options they never had before, including the ability to control a laser weapon's output and perform actions ranging from non-lethal disabling and deterrence all the way up to destruction," said the navy's statement.

The Laser Weapons System, known as LaWS, has four modes of use according to a military backgrounder.

  • Projecting a single, visible beam as a warning;
  • Locking onto a moving target to act as a target-assist for heat-guided missiles;
  • Destroy the optics of a missile or surveillance drone, essentially rendering it useless;
  • Destroy the target by actually burning it up, as shown in the demonstration video.

Though the navy estimates it will be at least five years before lasers replace any traditional weapons currently used on ships, it is hoped that lasers will eventually reduce the need for vessels to carry dangerous chemical propellants and explosives.

The navy said lasers also represent a much less expensive form of firepower. Firing a traditional missile can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, but the navy estimates that a single shot of directed laser energy costs less than $1.

"This capability provides a tremendously affordable answer to the costly problem of defending against asymmetric threats, and that kind of innovative approach is crucial in a fiscally constrained environment," said Chief of Naval Research Rear Adm. Matthew Klunder.

The U.S. Department of Defense has been working on laser weapons development since 1960, when the laser was first invented.