Directed Energy: US Navy officials observe a solid state laser beam director and tracking mount in Virginia in March. The UK is preparing to launch a competition that could lead toward a laser technology demonstrator for its warships. (John F. Williams/ / US Navy)
LONDON — Britain’s Defence Ministry will boost its investment in laser research and is preparing to launch a competition that could lead to a technology demonstrator, according to officials.
Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl), the research arm of the MoD, said it plans to kick off a competition this year to appoint a contractor to lead work on directed energy weapons (DEW).
“This four-year project aims to understand what potential there is for high energy laser technology to be used in future military capabilities,” an MoD spokeswoman said.
The work could result in the construction of a development system capable of being test fired, the spokeswoman said.
“The project aims to assess a number of sub-systems that will potentially be incorporated into a working developmental system for testing,” she said. “We intend to conduct outdoor testing at a range, but exact details are yet to be determined.”
MBDA, Lockheed Martin UK, Qinetiq, Thales UK, Raytheon UK and others could figure among the bidders for the contract.
The program is set to cost Dstl around £30 million (US $49 million) and a winning contractor is expected to be selected before the start of the new financial year in April 2015, the spokeswoman said.
The British, along with China, France, Germany, Israel, Russia, the US and others have been investing in direct energy weapons for decades.
A letter marked “Top Secret,” written by then-Defence Secretary Micheal Heseltine to Prime Minister Margret Thatcher in 1983, revealed that Britain began laser weapon research in the early 1960s and had been exchanging information on the subject with the US government since 1972.
The memo was declassified last year.
Doug Barrie, the senior air analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London said it is difficult to gauge just how good British know-how in the sector is.
“They haven’t gone out of the way to publicize their work, much of it has been classified,” he said. “My sense is Britain has some pretty good technology in this area.”
The British deployed direct energy weapons on Royal Navy warships as far back as 1982 in an attempt to blind or dazzle low-flying Argentinean-based fighter pilots during the Falklands war.
Thales UK executives told reporters during a briefing last year that they were about three years away from having a production-ready laser-powered soft-kill system capable of defeating electro-optically guided sensors on missiles.
The company has been developing a system for several years, but was looking for an international partner after MoD funds dried up.
Development of the meter-high weapon is thought to have grown out of the Royal Navy’s Maritime Integrated Defensive Aids Suite program, elements of which have been axed.
The US Navy has already installed a prototype laser weapon system on the afloat forward staging base ship Ponce for trials. The weapon is capable of disabling fast attack craft and UAVs.
The German arm of MBDA also has extensive laser DEW experience, having conducted tests in 2012 of a counter rocket, artillery and mortar system using 40 kilowatts of laser power.
Laser DEW systems have a number of potential applications, including dazzling or destroying electro-optical sensors on aircraft and missile sensors and in some cases damage the platforms themselves, Barrie said.
“One application could be to counter unmanned air vehicles where the lasers could blind sensors or damage the UAV. Another might be a counter rocket, artillery and mortar system,” he said.
But he said there is no prospect of the laser replacing conventional weapons in the next decade.
“What’s happened is there has been a shift in how the military and research establishments have been thinking about these weapons. Their level of ambition is much more realistic given the technology available over the medium term,” Barrie said. “Rather than see laser as a replacement, it is now being seen as an adjunct to supplement kinematic weapons.”
One of the attractions of the laser DEW is that once the system is up and running, the cost per shot is very low compared with missiles. But you have to balance that with performance limitations in conditions such as poor weather, Barrie said.
“You’ll have a gun, a missile and laser and use whichever is the most appropriate,” he said.
US Navy estimates put the cost of firing a DEW at less than a $1 a shot.
The British are also investing cash into research on a second element of directed energy weapons employing radio frequency.
The MoD said Dstl awarded MBDA a contract last year to run a radio frequency directed energy weapon project.
“Its purpose is to help improve the MoD’s understanding of how RF-DEWs can disrupt or damage electronic equipment and how, in turn, this can be prevented,” the spokeswoman said.
MBDA was appointed in October 2013 and the project will run until March 2016.
The company, and its predecessors, has been developing RF-DEW technology for years and as early as 1999 had a demonstrator tested by the US Naval Surface Warfare Center in partnership with the UK MoD.
RF-DEWS weapons can be used to disrupt or destroy military or civil electronic systems.
The Dstl website says the “work addresses the maturation of high innovation technology that can be exploited through technology demonstrator projects.”
The page uses the Boeing developed CHAMP — Counter-electronics High-powered Microwave Advanced Missile Project — as its illustration.
Boeing said it was no longer pursuing the counter electronics CHAMP program due to funding issues.
“We continue to talk with potential customers and could revive the program if customer funding were made available,” the company said in a statement.
“In some senses laser and RF-DEW are already fielded in small numbers and niche applications,” Barrie said. “If they wanted to, several countries could pack an RF payload into a munition, most likely a cruise missile, pretty damn quickly, if they haven’t already.” ■