The laser won't work against high-speed targets like incoming missiles or jet fighters, CBS News correspondent David Martin reported
Rear Admiral Matthew Klunder, chief of naval research, told Martin that if the power is turned down, it can fire a warning shot or blind a spy camera trying to take pictures.
"We can actually dazzle that sensor and degrade it completely. We can actually almost turn it off," said Kundler.
Rail guns, which have been tested on land in Virginia, fire a projectile at six or seven times the speed of sound - enough velocity to cause severe damage. The Navy sees them as replacing or supplementing old-school guns, firing lethal projectiles from long distances.
But both systems have shortcomings.
Lasers tend to loser their effectiveness if it's raining, if it's dusty, or if there's turbulence in the atmosphere, and the rail gun requires vast amount of electricity to launch the projectile, said Loren Thompson, defense analyst at the Lexington Institute.
"The Navy says it's found ways to deal with use of lasers in bad weather, but there's little doubt that the range of the weapon would be reduced by clouds, dust or precipitation," he said.
Producing enough energy for a rail gun is another problem.
The Navy's new destroyer, the Zumwalt, under construction at Bath Iron Works in Maine, is the only ship with enough electric power to run a rail gun. The stealthy ship's gas turbine-powered generators can produce up to 78 megawatts of power. That's enough electricity for a medium-size city - and more than enough for a rail gun.
Technology from the three ships in that DDG-1000 series will likely trickle down into future warships, said Capt. James Downey, the program manager.
Engineers are also working on a battery system to store enough energy to allow a rail gun to be operated on warships currently in the fleet.
Both weapon systems are prized because they serve to "get ahead of the cost curve," Ziv said.
In other words, they're cheap.
Each interceptor missile aboard a U.S. Navy warship costs at least $1 million apiece, making it cost-prohibitive to defend a ship in some hostile environments in which an enemy is using aircraft, drones, artillery, cruise missiles and artillery, Thompson said.
With a laser operating on about 30 kilowatts of electricity - and possibly three times that in the future - the cost amounts to a few dollars per shot, Thompson said.
The "Star Wars" analogy isn't a bad one.
Just like in the movies, the Navy's laser directs a beam of energy that can burn through a target or fry sensitive electronics. Unlike the movie, the laser beam is invisible to the human eye.
The targeting system locks onto the target, sending a beam of searing heat. "You see the effect on what you are targeting but you don't see the actual beam," Ziv said.
Other nations are developing their own lasers, but the Navy is more advanced at this point.
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