UK acquires two new anti-drone lasers

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The UK is investing around $ 100 million in new directed energy weapons at sea and on land. Divided into three contracts and announced on September 14 at Defense and Security Equipment International in London, two of the direct energy weapons will be lasers capable of stopping drones, while the third will use radio to detect and track targets. It’s a push for a new kind of weapon that can deal with a new kind of threat, and do so cost-effectively.

“These technologies have the potential to revolutionize the future battlefield of our armed forces, enabling the pursuit of new targets in the land, sea and air domains and enabling commanders to achieve mission objectives in new ways,” said said Shima Fhima, director of strategic programs. for the Ministry of Defense, in a press release.

As a category, “Directed Energy Weapons” includes a range of technologies, all of which use part of the electromagnetic spectrum and tilt it for military purposes for different effects. This is a broad wording, as the application can include everything from a laser beam of light so intense that it passes through the wing of a drone to the use of a radio signal to detect a helicopter.

What directed energy offers a military commander is a means of reaching the battlefield and stopping an enemy vehicle in its path, without the need to use bullets or missiles. Bullets and missiles have many advantages and are readily available in a bewildering array of varieties. They are also to some extent finite: a given weapon has run out of bullets, or a ship has fired its available complement of missiles, so it must turn to other weapons for answers, or retreat.

[Related: Watch this French laser zap drones out of the sky]

The modern danger, the one to which directed energy weapons are a reaction, consists of vast swarms of cheap and consumable drones. A fighter jet attack can involve ten planes; a drone swarm could contain hundreds or even more planes. Scaling up to defeat this with more traditional weapons such as missiles would be expensive and unwieldy, both in terms of weapons and due to limited storage capacity.

Directed energy, at least in theory, provides firepower limited only by a ship’s ability to store and generate energy. This makes it especially useful against drones, as each kill can be cheaper than the item it destroys.

“[These] next-generation technologies could revolutionize the battlefield and reduce the risk of collateral damage, ”the ministry said in a press release. “The systems are electrically powered and operate without ammunition, dramatically reducing operating costs, increasing rig endurance, and providing unprecedented offensive and defensive flexibility to frontline personnel. “

For its investment of nearly $ 100 million, the ministry will receive a laser weapon to be tested on a Royal Navy Type 23 frigate from 2023. In this role, the laser will be combined with other systems to detect, track, engage and counter drones. They will likely fight the drones by burning their cells.

On land, the ministry will test a laser demonstrator on a vehicle called the Wolfhound. The Wolfhound is a six-wheeled armored machine, with a crew of two and room for 10 passengers, used to transport troops into action. The Wolfhound’s laser will also be used to counter drones, indicating a future where the threat to troops in combat comes not only from bombs placed along roadsides, but also from cheap attacks launched from the air.

[Related: The US military wants force fields that could stop nuclear missiles]

The third directed energy device, a radiofrequency demonstrator, is not an explicitly destructive tool. It is designed for use on a support vehicle or a large freight truck. From the truck, it will “detect and track a variety of air, land and sea targets,” suggesting the goal is less to protect the freight truck than to turn it into a base for a useful, wide-range sensor.

Directed energy weapons are still an emerging technology. The US Navy deployed one to a deployed ship in 2014, and demonstrated that the laser weapon could, in a test frame, knock a small drone out of the sky.

What will be crucial for these UK programs is not only that they demonstrate a viable weapon, but also that they show that it can be profitable for its stated purposes. If a laser is too expensive to deploy, it is far better to use a weapon that can actually be used in combat.


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