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Industry continues to shape the laser or directed energy systems domain

MBDA Deutschland unveiled the first prototype of a high energy laser (HEL) system in 2008. According to the company, HEL systems are seen as a prominent way to defeat a wide spectrum of targets, chiefly airborne threats like tiny unmanned aircraft (drones) or ‘drone swarms’. The target list also includes guided/unguided rockets, mortar projectiles and artillery shells. Much of the company’s optimism is connected to the increasing symmetric warfare scenarios military forces need to address in the future. MBDA Deutschland informed, at its facilities close to Schrobenhausen (Bavaria) in early June, on the current activities focusing on an operational technology that could attract the interest of the German Bundeswehr. MONCh was told that the HEL technology currently under development fits exactly into the category of “extremely low-cost” but “technologically highly sophisticated and scalable weapons” the German Navy is seeking to fit to surface combatants. The major aim is to counter airborne threats at close distance. The current technology allows for a tracking distance of up to 3,000m, MBDA sources noted. A fully operational HEL system, e.g. fitted to corvettes, frigates or fast supply ships, can be reality in the early 2020s, representing a pre-requisite for a complementary self-protection system with superior performance characteristics. The target list may also include waterborne threats like speedboats, said Peter Heilmeier, Head of Sales & Business Development at MBDA Deutschland. German Navy plans quote that a Type K130 corvette may be fitted with a containerised 20kW HEL system for rigorous testing over a two-year period. Industry sources expect the release of a tender for the “naval demonstrator” (F&T Stufe/Phase 3) within June, which could be followed by the contract award “within the fourth quarter of 2019.”

There is also much optimism for international cooperation. Under the umbrella of a German-Dutch cooperative effort, laser weapon technology could be employed by protected vehicles, with sources quoting the GTK BOXER multirole armoured fighting vehicle in service in sufficient numbers in the German and Dutch armies. MONCh understands that the current project is purely a research & development (R&D) initiative (Stufe/Phase 2), with Dutch industry supplying sensors and associated components. It was told that the laser weapon in question could be a 5-10kW HEL system that could be adequately fitted to the BOXER. Using an HEL weapon coupled with a sophisticated detection and tracking system, it is possible to direct a high level of energy very accurately to a target at the speed of light. The HEL can hit airborne threats at close range, e.g. tiny drones that pose imminent risks for ground troops. The great advantage of an HEL system is that the resulting beam is unaffected by gravity or air flow and is very difficult for targets to counter or evade. This creates a real, fast-responsive weapon system to defeat those targets that aim to reduce their own signatures.

It is interesting to note that the German Army’s Main Ground Combat System (MGCS) project also aims to introduce a laser weapon to defeat drones at short distances. German Army sources quote that the introduction of a vehicle-carried laser weapon is a main requirement, depending on the sophistication of the effector and its level of miniaturisation. Fighting enemy threats with equal or greater technological capabilities than their own is described in German Bundeswehr papers as essential to survive in future symmetric battlefield scenarios. The increasing requirements in this field are the reason for the Bundeswehr’s financial participation in the development of laser weapons technology, currently being undertaken at the two major industrial players, MBDA Deutschland and Rheinmetall Waffe Munition (RWM).

The future tells how sophisticated HEL systems can be deployed as a full-scale defensive option in both the maritime and land warfare domains. Industry noted that the current technology offers much growth potential for improved systems in the future. Besides Germany, there is a small number of countries that are currently engaged in the development of such systems, including both France and the United Kingdom in Europe, as well as the United States (developing a 60kW HEL for warships and projecting 100-150kW lasers), Russia and the People’s Republic of China. MBDA Deutschland concluded during in early June that a full-scale counter-UAV capability requires an 80+kW HEL system. Doris Laarmann, Head of Project at MBDA Deutschland warns that a 100kW laser (as envisioned by the US military) may not possess the required beam quality for military use, however.

André Forkert (translation by Stefan Nitschke)

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