MBDA Germany is claiming a world’s first in the development of high-energy laser weapons after coupling together four commercially available 10kW-industrial lasers to achieve a 40kW weapon that can intercept and destroy incoming rockets, artillery and mortars (RAM). Small aerial vehicles, such as UAVs, are also on MBDA’s target list, but the company says power supply challenges still preclude adding lasers to aircraft for defensive purposes.
“We are leading the world in this technology,” claimed Peter Heilmeier, head of market and business development, MBDA Germany. He described several successful tests since 2008, including one in the Bavarian mountains in 2011 that fired a 10kW-laser beam toward a target at a slant distance of 2,350 meters (7,700 feet) and an altitude gain of 1,000 meters (3,300 feet). The source comprised two 5kW lasers; MBDA’s patented beam-coupling technique achieved good beam quality. That performance would be sufficient to bring down, for example, a UAV.
Last year, the company tested a 40kW laser beam that proved it could destroy 40-mm/1.5-inch-thick steel plates at a range of 500 meters (1,600 feet). MBDA returned to the Bavarian range to demonstrate a complete combat sequence, using highly sensitive, four-channel mirror optics to track a target with an unpredictable trajectory and precisely adjust the laser beam.
“High-power laser weapons will soon provide an answer to conventional and asymmetric threats,” said Heilmeier. “They are characterized by precision at long ranges, minimum operating costs and the avoidance of collateral damage.” Other advantages include minimal logistics (no need to store and transport ammunition) and the possibility to scale the weapon and the power of its response to an approaching target.
MBDA believes that the first practical application for laser defense, achievable within the next five years, will be the protection of military camps and critical infrastructure. The self-defense of ships and ground vehicles could be next. But the protection of aircraft–both civil and military–“is not yet under investigation,” according to Heilmeier.
Mobile applications are the most challenging because of the high electrical current that must be generated. In the U.S., the only unclassified project involving the airborne firing of a laser weapon, a megawatt-class, chemical-oxygen-iodine laser (COIL), was canceled in late 2011.
MBDA is using a combination of company funds and grants from the German Federal Office of Defence Technology and Procurement (the BWB). It is now pitching for a development contract.