It is virtually impossible to find something mundane to say about the exciting project to develop futuristic laser guns for the British Armed Forces, but try this: Porton Down’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) have calculated that when they eventually produce firepower of this type for the Army, each shot would cost the taxpayer just 60 pence. That’s around £3 less than the price of each bullet fired in Afghanistan. Dull? Yes. Important? Very.
In fact, it may be this reason above any other why the technology will eventually go into service.
But don’t think this is all about making the MoD bean-counters happy; it’s mainly about using the Army’s resources to match a proliferating threat with an appropriate response. “The old saying about not needing a sledgehammer to crack a nut comes to mind,” says Maj Paul Cooper (Mercian), a military adviser with a PhD in atomic and laser physics who is attached to DSTL. He is part of the team working with a group of private firms on the UK’s laser directed energy weapon programme, called Dragonfire.
“One major application of this technology would be to counter the deployment of cheap unmanned aerial systems,” he continues.
“We have already seen them being used widely in Syria and Ukraine. They are cheap, easy to get hold of and at the moment we have to ask ourselves what is the most efficient way of stopping them."
“Do we fire our very expensive missiles at them when the insurgents can simply go out and buy replacements for a hundred quid or so on the internet?”
Laser weaponry isn’t entirely new to the military. A dazzle capability was reportedly deployed by the Royal Navy in the South Atlantic during the Falklands War, but it was never used. The US Navy, meanwhile, fielded a basic laser gun for testing on-board USS Ponce during a deployment to the Arabian Gulf in 2014. But if this latest project is deemed successful the first of a new generation of much more versatile and capable laser armaments could come into service with the British Army in the mid-2020s. The weapon itself will probably look more like something shipped out of a white goods warehouse than the product of a film studio. It won’t be a Stormtrooper-style handheld gun but will likely resemble a large kitchen freezer mounted on a vehicle, or statically on an A-frame. When it’s fired you won’t see a streak of red light coursing through the sky either because the beam is invisible to the naked eye. However, there will be some similarities to the Star Wars-esque firepower we associate with lasers. For instance, it will be able to cut through the metal skin of an aircraft, drone, ship or armoured vehicle and detonate fuels tanks or any arms behind it in the blink of an eye. And there’ll be no need to reload the weapon when facing multiple targets.
The system’s battlefield potential is undoubtedly huge but the Dragonfire team have a lot of work ahead of them to create a viable military tool.
Read more in the March 2017 issue.