GLENROTHES, Scotland — Britain is set to take its first major step toward fielding a laser directed energy weapon next month when the Ministry of Defence is due to select a contractor to build a technology demonstrator to validate the system.
MoD officials could select a winning contractor to build the demonstrator as early as June 3, according to Andy Rhodes, a business development executive at Raytheon UK, told reporters during a briefing at the company's plant here.
Raytheon is part of a Babcock-led consortium vying for the deal in a competition which also includes MBDA, Lockheed Martin, Thales UK and Rheinmetall.
The Babcock team also includes Leonardo-Finmeccanica (Selex) supplying the optronics and a Qinetiq developed laser.
Qinetiq is thought to be supplying its laser to at least three of the contenders for the competition being run by the governments defense laboratory DSTL.
Adopting a contender with Qinetiq lasers would help maintain local capability in a field dominated recently by US and German advances.
Rhodes said the first firing of the laser weapon could take place in 2018, confirming what the then-First Sea Lord Adm. Sir George Zambellas told a conference at last year's DSEI exhibition in London.
The first tests will take place on land followed by firings at sea.
The target is expected to be an unmanned aircraft although the laser test system is planned to have the power to take down a missile.
The Babcock team is offering a modified truck-mounted version of Raytheon's Phalanx close in anti-missile with the gun removed to make way for the laser. The radars and other systems will stay in place.
Rhodes said that using elements of the truck-mounted system, used to protect UK bases in Iraq, ensured the research and development money was focused on the laser and not the mounting.
"It's better to spend money on the laser than on the mount," Rhodes said.
The executive said he would expect the program to lead to further development work, probably a full-up program to equip the Royal Navy with a directed energy weapon.
Raytheon showed a possible configuration for a deployable system with a laser and the 20mm Phalanx fitted alongside radars, flir and optronics.
The Royal Navy already widely uses the Phalanx across its fleet.
British are in the throes of upgrading a weapon being fitted to two new aircraft carriers, Type 26 frigates, and support ships.
Rhodes said he expected the Royal Navy would add to its stock of Phalanx by purchasing additional weapons at some point.
Andrew Chuter is the United Kingdom correspondent for Defense News.