The Army has successfully tested a futuristic laser weapon capable of shooting football-sized mortar rounds and unmanned drones out of the sky. The truck-mounted weapon, known as the High Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator (HEL MD) is still about a decade away from becoming an operational part of the Army's arsenal, but gives a hint at what a weapon of the future could look like.
The Army tested its HEL MD laser at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico for nearly six weeks starting in mid-November. The device was equipped with a 10-kilowatt solid state laser and a radar system mounted atop a heavy truck.
During the tests a "quarter-sized" invisible laser beam successfully targeted and destroyed more than 90 incoming mortar rounds and six to seven unmanned drones.
Terry Bauer, the project manager for the laser program, said the test results were "above and beyond" what they had expected going into the testing. "We had no thoughts that this 10-kilowatt would be as successful n doing that as it has been. "
Mortars are common battlefield weapons that are hard to protect against because they can be fired from short distances. The mortars used in the test were standard 60 millimeter rounds - the length of a football - fired from a distance of less than two kilometers in salvos of two to three mortar rounds each. The laser's success rate against incoming mortar shells indicates that battlefield protection from the small explosive rounds could be possible in a few years.
Army video of the laser tests shows the laser targeting the mortar so that it burns up in mid-air and does not explode when it completes its trajectory. "We turn it into a rock, basically," said Bauer.
Large test drones flying 5 kilometers from the laser system were made to crash into the New Mexico desert by aiming the laser at the tail of the unmanned aircraft. An infrared camera on the video captured how a small dot of light on the tail slowly grew in intensity, forcing the craft to lose navigational control. The laser can also be used for less offensive purposes by dialing back its intensity to blind sensors aboard the drones.
Plans call for shrinking the size of the laser system while also boosting its strength to 50 kilowatts, and ultimately 100 kilowatts. Shrinking its size will make it easier to mount on more mobile vehicles that can be used on the battlefield. Increasing the wattage will allow the beam to hit faster-moving targets at greater distances and in a shorter amount of time. For example, a 100 kilowatt laser beam will be able to bring down a target in a tenth of the time it currently takes for a 10 kilowatt laser.
The laser is able to fire and target only one incoming target at a time, so the idea is that when the lasers are fully operational they will be grouped in teams of three or five to protect against multiple incoming rounds. These laser units could be deployed in the future to help protect frontline units or bases . Ultimately the laser could be used against faster moving aircraft and cruise missiles.
The Navy made waves earlier this year when it unveiled that its own laser mounted aboard a destroyer had brought down test drones and which in the future could be used to fend off fast-moving attack boats. Current plans call for the Navy's laser to be tested aboard the USS Ponce, which is permanently stationed in the Persian Gulf.
The next phase of testing for the Army's laser will be early next year when it is taken to an Air Force base along Florida's Gulf Coast to see how it handles a marine environment.
So far the Army's laser testing program has cost about $13 million a year since it began in 2011. But over the long term it looks like a good deal as the cost of taking out each mortar round is estimated to be the price of a cup of diesel fuel.