The UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) has disclosed plans to compete the build and demonstration of a prototype high power laser directed energy weapon.
A supplier briefing for the project - known as the Laser Directed Energy Weapon Capability Demonstrator (LDEW CD) - is to be hosted by the MoD's Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) in mid-April. The announcement of this event has followed the release of a prior information notice in February.
According to Dstl, the aim of the capability demonstrator "is to enhance the UK's understanding of the capability of laser-based weapon system, as well as assisting in the prediction of the anticipated system performance". It added that the project "will consist of system studies and hardware trials, culminating in a number of practical demonstrations".
No details of the power, laser type, or proposed platform for the LDEW CD project have been released to date. However, Dstl has confirmed that the project demonstrations will be required to establish five key metrics: the ability to detect, acquire and track targets at range and in varying weather conditions with sufficient precision; the ability to generate and precisely control a high energy laser; control of the irradiance of the laser; management of power and cooling demands whilst enabling operation of the laser over a prolonged period; and control requirements, particularly managing the risks such that the laser is safe to operate.
Dstl said it expects to award a single contract to cover the design, build, and test of the capability demonstrator. However, it added that, given the broad range of capabilities required to meet the LDEW CD research requirement, it "is not expected that a single supplier would be able to fulfil this requirement in its entirety". This infers an expectation that industry players will coalesce into multi-disciplinary teams to bid for the contract.
The battlefield of the future recently came a step closer, as a Lockheed Martin laser weapon took out a truck in a field test. The 30-kW fiber laser weapon system was fired at a small truck mounted on a test platform, the laser beam disabled the running engine and drivetrain within seconds.
The recent field test used Lockheed's Advanced Test High Energy Asset (ATHENA) ground-based prototype, single-mode laser, which is based on the company's Area Defense Anti-Munitions (ADAM) laser weapon system. It incorporates the 30-kW Accelerated Laser Demonstration Initiative (ALADIN) fiber laser developed by Lockheed.
ATHENA uses a process that the company calls Spectrum Beam Combining. Though laser weapons have been successfully tested in the past, Lockheed says that even though such systems could acquire, track, and destroy targets, they lack practicality as a tactical weapon because the inefficient nature of the lasers resulted in them being too large, needing too much power, and being difficult to cool.
Spectrum Beam Combining overcomes these limitations by using fiber laser modules where the active gain medium consists of an optical fiber doped with a rare-earth element such as erbium, ytterbium, neodymium, or others. The optical fibers are flexible, so the laser can be thousands of meters long for greater gain, while taking up very little space because it can be coiled like a rope. The large surface-to-volume ratio means that it's easy to cool. In addition, fiber laser are very durable and project a high-quality beam using 50 percent less electricity than an equivalent solid-state laser.