Aerospace and defense firm Raytheon will open a testing and development site in Scotland next year to test laser weapons capable of shooting drones and rockets out of the sky. The high-energy laser (HEL) systems will be able to burn through drones and rockets within two seconds from six miles away.
The “Advanced Laser Integration Center” in Livingston in West Lothian, Scotland, is intended to be a hub for all of Europe. Raytheon said in a statement the new site will focus on “testing, fielding and maintenance of defensive HEL weapons.”
These laser weapons are designed to combat ‘asymmetric threats’ like drones, rockets, artillery and mortars, according to Michael Hofle, senior director of high energy lasers at Raytheon Intelligence & Space.
Raytheon UK gave a demonstrator contract to deliver an HEL weapon system to the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) in September 2021. The weapon will be installed on a six-wheeled heavy armored truck used by the British Army called a Wolfhound.
Laser systems have been integrated more into defense departments in recent years due to the cost-effectiveness of utilizing lasers as opposed to manufacturing individual surface-to-air missiles.
The 15-kilowatt laser will be able to target aerial vehicles and drones for a negligible cost, requiring only the energy needed to power the HEL system. A more powerful 50-kilowatt HEL system is currently being tested by the U.S. Army.
“We’ve all seen that asymmetric threats like drones, rockets, artillery and mortars are a serious problem, and demand is spiking for cost-effective lasers to defeat them,” said Hofle. “Standing up an advanced integration facility in the UK reflects the maturity of our technology and our commitment to deliver the HEL systems our customers need to defend the skies.”
Small commercial drones, which the weapons are designed to defend against, have demonstrated their military effectiveness in Ukraine, directing and correcting artillery fire and, in some cases, being modified to carry explosives, according to BBC News.
Israel recently implemented a similar defense system called the Iron Beam. Former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett announced on June 1 that the new laser-based defense system could be deployed as early as 2023.
The Iron Beam is an upgrade on the current Iron Dome defense system that intercepts incoming drones and missiles. It will reportedly operate at a fraction of the price of its predecessor at only $2 per interception.
The system is a significantly more effective option than the current shoot-down system that costs between tens of thousands and millions of dollars to intercept incoming missiles and drones. That $2 cost comes from the electricity used to power up the laser, meaning as long as it has power it can continue to intercept enemy rockets indefinitely.
“This is a game-changer, not just because we are striking at the enemy military, but also because we are bankrupting it,” said former Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett during a visit to the system’s state-owned manufacturer, Rafael Advanced Defense Systems.
The Future of Defense
Experts have predicted high-energy lasers could make up as much as 30% of an air defense’s infrastructure in the future due to their precision and how economical they are compared to more traditional surface-to-air defense systems.
With the new Advanced Laser Integration Center acting as a testing and development base for all of Europe, other countries in the region could integrate these systems by the middle of the decade.