The U.K. has successfully tested a high-power laser weapon against an aerial target for the first time, the British Ministry of Defence said, with the weapons expected to be deployed on the battlefield within five to ten years.
The DragonFire laser system fires an intense beam of light that can cut through targets, is accurate enough to hit a coin from a kilometer’s distance, and costs around $12 a shot, compared with approximately $1 million for existing air defense missiles.
Both the British Army and the Royal Navy are considering deploying laser weapons, which military planners say can help defend against swarms of cheap drones that are used to attack ships or armored vehicles and can overwhelm air defenses.
Defense officials are frustrated at slow deployment of laser weapons
While the U.K. has made good progress with its laser weapons, “it’s transitioning the technology to the marketplace that is the problem,” air warfare analyst Doug Barrie told Defense News. Across the Atlantic, Pentagon officials are also asking why laser weapons, which the U.S. has deployed in a handful of vessels, are not deployed more widely. One vice admiral told the Navy Times that laser weapons were deployed on navy transport docks as long as a decade ago, but are still not widely available. “We’re 10 years down the road and we still don’t have something we can field?” Brendan McLane said, adding that the pace of development was “frustrating.”
Energy constraints and supply chain issues make development challenging
While the Pentagon spends roughly $1 billion per year to develop directed energy weapons such as lasers, it has struggled to get them “out of the lab and into the field,” a U.S. federal watchdog said.
Directed energy weapons use a beam of concentrated electromagnetic energy to damage an enemy target, and also include high-power microwave weapons and millimeter wave weapons.
Part of the issue in deploying them more widely is that these weapons consume vast amounts of electricity — as much as that of a small town according to one analyst — which makes them bulky and heavy. Issues including a Chinese chokehold on key minerals, a shortage of skilled labor, and a small manufacturing base mean that the U.S. defense industry currently is unable to produce directed energy weapons at scale, according to a report by industry advocates published on Tuesday.
China may already be using lasers in the South China Sea
China has also been investing heavily in high-energy laser weapons, with Chinese scientists claiming to have achieved a “huge breakthrough” in the technology last year, the South China Morning Post reported. A new cooling system will allow the Chinese-made weapons to operate indefinitely, increasing the range of the energy beams and their potential to inflict damage, the outlet said. China is already reported to have deployed smaller such weapons in the South China Sea to controversial effect: one incident last year caused temporary blindness in the crew of a Philippine coast guard ship, a Philippine government report said — although China disputed the claims, saying it was simply using hand-held lasers to measure the speed and distance of the vessel. China may believe that low-grade, non-lethal laser weapons can be used to intimidate adversaries without leading to escalation, the report suggested.