The laser-weapon dream of every Star Wars fan could soon come true thanks to MBDA. The British branch of the European missile-house and its partners*, grouped together in the UK Dragonfire consortium, on 4 January signed a €35M contract with the UK Ministry of Defence to develop a high intensity laser weapon demonstrator.
“This is a significant demonstration programme aimed at maturing our understanding of what is still an immature technology. It draws on innovative research into high power lasers so as to understand the potential of the technology to provide a more effective response to the emerging threats that could be faced by UK armed forces,” said Peter Cooper, project manager at the MOD’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl), during the signing ceremony.
Financed by the ambitious Innovation Fund of some £800M (€1Bn), UK Dragonfire will spend two years assessing innovative LDEW (laser directed energy weapon) technologies and approaches, culminating in a demonstration of the system in 2019. The contract will assess how the system can pick up and track targets at various ranges and in varied weather conditions over land and water, to allow precision use. If successful, the weapon could be deployed on land and water during the upcoming decade and be airborne by 2040.
The choice of MBDA to pilot the project was logical, given that the group has been researching LDEW technologies for three decades. In June 2015, a 20kW laser beam developed by the German division of MBDA destroyed a mini RPAS (remotely piloted air system) at a distance of 500m in 3.39 seconds. This successful demonstration enabled European manufactures to level the playing field with the United States. To mention just the ground segment, in November 2013, the US Army successfully tested the High Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator (HEL MD). Thanks to a 10kW (a bit weaker than a camera flash) laser beam, the HEL MD neutralised a number of RPASs and almost 90 mortar shells, awakening de facto the curiosity of foreign research organisations – allied and otherwise.
Like Archimedes’ mirror, a laser weapon uses a beam of concentrated electromagnetic energy to heat a precise point on a target thereby ensuring its almost instantaneous destruction. Studied from the 1980s in the framework of the US Star Wars programme, laser weapons have many advantages over conventional ones. Inexpensive (around €1 a shot), insuperable because operating at the speed of light, and practically indetecable by a human, these weapons could be a disruptive innovation comparable to the invention of gunpowder, on condition that the thorny issue of its consumption of energy be solved.
*Qinetiq, Leonardo-Finmeccanica, GKN, Arke, BAE Systems and Marshall ADG