The US Army has for the first time successfully tested a vehicle-mounted laser that managed to shoot down incoming mortar rounds and drone aircraft, officials said Thursday.
Installed in a dome-shaped turret atop a military vehicle, the high-energy laser hit more than 90 mortar bombs and several small unmanned planes over a six-week test at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.
The experimental weapon, dubbed the High Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator (HEL MD), likely would not be operational until 2022 if the Army decides to purchase the system, according to officials.
The weapon, with three to five lasers, is designed to protect remote bases from mortar, artillery or rocket fire. Such attacks were frequent against “forward operating” bases in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade.
The laser used in the test this month had a strength of 10 kilowatts (kW), but the program will next use more powerful lasers of 50 kW and then, finally, 100 kW, officials said.
“If you’re engaging a target at the same range, a 100 kW laser will destroy the target in one-tenth of the time than the 10kW would,” said Terry Bauer, a program manager at Boeing, the lead contractor on the project.
In the test at White Sands, the laser was fired at 60mm mortar rounds, which have a range of 2,000 to 3,000 yards (1,800-2,700 meters).
Without providing a detailed account, officials said the laser scored a “significant success” against the mortar rounds and several drones.
“The system is capable of rapidly acquiring with the radar these very small targets and point a laser beam about the size of a quarter and destroy the targets while they’re flying,” said Mike Rim, a second program manager at Boeing.
A more advanced version of the weapon will eventually be able to knock out objects moving much faster than the mortar rounds, such as cruise missiles, according to military officials.
The military has invested in a variety of laser weapons over the past several years with mixed results.
The US Navy is due in 2014 to equip a ship converted into a “floating base,” the USS Ponce, with a laser capable of destroying small boats or surveillance drones.