Aerospace & Defence

Advanced future military laser achieves UK first

19th January 2024
Paige West

In a new development, the UK recently witnessed its first high-power firing of a laser weapon against aerial targets. This achievement took place at the MOD’s Hebrides Range, where the DragonFire laser directed energy weapon (LDEW) system was tested.

DragonFire, a line-of-sight weapon, can engage with any visible target, although its range remains classified. The accuracy required for DragonFire is akin to hitting a £1 coin from a kilometre away.

Laser-directed energy weapons operate at the speed of light. They utilise an intense beam of light to cut through targets, causing structural failure or more significant outcomes, especially if a warhead is targeted. The efficiency of this technology is noteworthy: operating the laser for 10 seconds costs roughly the same as using a regular heater for an hour, making it a potentially cost-effective alternative to certain missile tasks. The operational cost is typically less than £10 per shot.

The Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl), on behalf of the UK MOD, leads the DragonFire project in collaboration with industry partners MBDA, Leonardo, and QinetiQ. This milestone in laser technology demonstrates the capability to engage aerial targets at relevant ranges, marking a significant step towards integrating this technology into active service. The Army and Royal Navy are considering incorporating this technology into their future Air Defence capabilities.

Defence Secretary, Grant Shapp said: “This type of cutting-edge weaponry has the potential to revolutionise the battlespace by reducing the reliance on expensive ammunition, while also lowering the risk of collateral damage.

“Investments with industry partners in advanced technologies like DragonFire are crucial in a highly contested world, helping us maintain the battle-winning edge and keep the nation safe.”

The recent trial success builds on a series of earlier trials, including the first static high-power laser firing of a sovereign UK capability and the demonstration of DragonFire's ability to track moving air and sea targets with high accuracy at range.

Dstl’s Chief Executive, Dr Paul Hollinshead said: “These trials have seen us take a huge step forward in realising the potential opportunities and understanding the threats posed by directed energy weapons.

“With our decades of knowledge, skills, and operational experience, Dstl’s expertise is critical to helping the armed forces prepare for the future.”

The DragonFire weapon system is a result of a £100 million joint investment by the Ministry of Defence and industry, supporting highly-skilled UK jobs in new technologies and marking a significant advancement in the UK's capability in LDEW systems.

In 2017, the MOD’s Chief Scientific Advisor’s Research Programme awarded a £30 million contract to the DragonFire consortium to demonstrate the potential of LDEWs.

Dr Nick Joad, DST said: “This is a really innovative application of science and engineering and is the fruit of sustained investment and effort. DragonFire uses cutting-edge science and technology and delivers much greater performance than other systems of a similar class. DragonFire provides a step-change in our ability to deal with high-performance and low-cost threats.”

Shimon Fhima, Director Strategic Programmes for the MOD said: “The DragonFire trials at the Hebrides demonstrated that our world-leading technology can track and engage high-end effects at range. In a world of evolving threats, we know that our focus must be on getting capability to the warfighter and we will look to accelerate this next phase of activity.”

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