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Of all the approaches to energy weaponry, arguably none has generated more interest than laser technology. Britain’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) has recently awarded a £30m contract to produce a demonstrator system in the 50kW class which could ultimately see fully weaponized lasers entering service within a decade.
The MoD’s association with the concept began almost as soon as the technology emerged back in the early 1960s. A letter written in 1983 by the then Defence Secretary Michael Heseltine to the Prime Minister of the day, Margaret Thatcher, and quoted by army-technology.com, describes the weapon as being “designed to dazzle low-flying Argentinean pilots attacking ships”.
According to Dragonfire UK, the aptly-named consortium charged with turning this concept into a battlefield reality, the aim of this programme is to mature the technologies for a defensive laser weapon system. Some of the biggest names in defence are working to make it happen. Headed by world-leading missile systems firm MBDA, the Dragonfire team also includes Arke, BAE Systems, GKN, Leonardo (formerly Finmeccanica), Marshall Defence and Aerospace and Qinetiq.
A series of planned demonstrations will include initial detection and engagement planning, pointing and tracking, engagement, battle damage assessment and follow-on engagement capability. Britain’s new weapon will also have to meet a number of broader criteria before it can be considered for eventual deployment, including the ability to track targets under all weather conditions, long-term, sustained reliability and operational safety.
After this, a technology demonstrator programme is expected to follow to capitalise on the gains made in order to shorten the time to fielding a credible laser capability. Dragonfire anticipates that laser technologies will be operationally mature from the early to mid-2020s. Not only will that potentially put Britain at the forefront of laser DEW development, but as Dave Armstrong, executive group director for technical and UK managing director of MBDA, observed when the contract was awarded, it also “advances the UK towards a future product with significant export potential”.
According to forecasts from industry analysts Research and Markets, the global market for DEWs will grow handomely between 2016 and 2021, reaching $24.45bn by the end of the period, and there is little reason to believe it will stop there.
The appeal of laser weapons is obvious. Once the development and procurement costs have been paid, and the requisite energy generation systems put in place, an operational DEW has three unassailable advantages over any conventional projectile firing weapon that relies on gunpowder or rockets. It offers speed-of-light shots at a very low cost and it never runs out of ammunition, and there are no munitions transportation or storage requirements to meet either.
Although there are still some technical issues to resolve, half a century on from the laser’s invention, it seems the technology could finally be about to translate some of this long-awaited promise and head along the road to real-world, in-service capability.