Scientists at Los Alamos National Lab say they're months ahead of schedule with the Office of Naval Research's 'superlaser' weapon.
They've demonstrated an injector for the Free Electron Laser (FEL) program that can generate the electrons needed for the megawatt-class laser beams which would be able to zap missiles out of the sky at the speed of light.
"The injector performed as we predicted all along. But until now, we didn't have the evidence to support our models," said Dr Dinh Nguyen, senior project leader for the FEL program at the lab.
"We were so happy to see our design, fabrication and testing efforts finally come to fruition. We're currently working to measure the properties of the continuous electron beams, and hope to set a world record for the average current of electrons."
The FEL is designed to provide a laser defense that could be used anywhere in the world's oceans. The project has been going since the 1980s.
The laser works by passing a beam of high-energy electrons generated by an injector through a series of strong magnetic fields, causing an intense emission of laser light at a number of wavelengths.
The Navy now has a 14-kilowatt prototype, but still has a long way to go: the aim is to create a 100-kilowatt version. It needs this level of power in order to operate efficiently even at sea, where high humidity can cause problems at some wavelengths.
ONR says it hopes to be able to test a full-power version of the FEL at sea by 2018.