Rheinmetall successfully tests high-energy laser weapons, expects power to increase over coming years


Rheinmetall expects a high-energy laser weapon system with an output of 100 kW to be available within the next three to five years, after demonstrating several laser weapons in action.

Rheinmetall said that laser weapons in future will offer the principal advantage of reduced cost, since material consumption and wear and tear with laser effectors is naturally low.

The company made the statement after a live fire laser demo at the Group’s Ochsenboden proving ground, where international guests were able to view two laser weapon demonstrators in action, each featuring different performance parameters.

For example, a 10-kW laser was integrated into an air defence system consisting of an Oerlikon Skyguard 3 fire control unit and a Skyshield gun turret. Modular and scalable, the laser weapon itself consisted of two 5-kW laser weapon modules.

In addition, a 1-kW laser weapon module was displayed, specially mounted on a TM 170-type vehicle for the purpose.

Both laser weapon demonstrators were deployed in different scenarios: as a means of providing protection from asymmetric, terrorist-type threats; in a C-RAM context to counter the threat from incoming rockets, artillery and mortar rounds; and in an air defence scenario with an unmanned air vehicle serving as the target.

Among other things, the 1-kW laser weapon demonstrator successfully sank a moving rubber raft (a substitute for an enemy speedboat), and also proved highly effective in destroying IEDs as well as neutralizing unexploded ordnance from a safe distance.

In the C-RAM scenario, the 10-kW laser weapon demonstrator revealed that doubling the laser output from 5 kW (the design status in 2010) to 10 kW results in substantially improved performance against mortar rounds, with the required engagement time reduced by approximately 50%.

A technological highlight in the air defence scenario was the engagement of a Tier 1-class unmanned air vehicle (UAV). The air defence system, equipped with a 10-kW laser weapon demonstrator, was able to detect, track and engage the target (the so-called “kill chain”), successfully destroying the UAV in flight.

The Oerlikon Skyguard system detected the incoming threat, initiated the electronic target tracking process, slewed the Skyshield turret in the direction of the UAV and transmitted the target data to the laser weapon demonstrator. Independently taking up the target tracking process, this effector switched to fine-tracking mode before aiming the laser beam at the drone and destroying it in a matter of seconds.

Rheinmetall also occupies a leading position in another area of laser R&D: in cooperation with its cooperation partner, the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Optics and Precison Engineering (IOF) in Jena, Rheinmetall holds the public world record for spectral coupling of laser pulses with an 8-kW laser output and excellent beam quality.

Many other defence companies are working on laser weapons. In September MBDA Germany said it conducted several successful tests with a laser demonstrator, paving the way to a counter rocket, artillery, mortar (C-RAM) laser weapon system.

The company said the ability to direct 10 kW of laser power over a long distance and reach a target with a high quality beam is a decisive forward step. “For the first time, 10kW laser power reached a moving target located more than two kilometres away while retaining a high quality beam. The tracking of dynamic objects and the effects on the object were demonstrated over a distance of more than 2 300m and an altitude differential of 1 000m under real-life environmental conditions.”

MBDA Germany leads an European consortium that has been developing the major aspects of the system in a study being conducted on behalf of the European Defence Agency (EDA) since 2009.

Meanwhile, in the United States the Department of Defence mounted a megawatt-class chemical oxygen iodine laser (COIL) inside a modified Boeing 747-400F to create the Boeing YAL-1 Airborne Laser Testbed weapons system, which was designed to destroy tactical ballistic missiles, while in boost phase.

The YAL-1 with a low-power laser was test-fired in flight, at an airborne target in 2007. A high-energy laser was used to intercept a test target in January 2010, and the following month, successfully destroyed two test missiles.

Between October 2010 and April 2011 the U.S. Navy and Northrop Grumman successfully demonstrated high-energy, solid-state laser defences at sea by completing a “counter-material” test of the Maritime Laser Demonstrator (MLD) against small boats.

Northrop Grumman designed and built the MLD for the Office of Naval Research, leveraging a laser built by Northrop Grumman for the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command and the High Energy Laser Joint Technology Office.

Open ocean tests were conducted at the Pacific Ocean Test Range near San Nicolas Island off the Central California coast. For these tests, the laser system was installed on the Navy’s Self Defence Test Ship, the USS Paul Foster.

Boeing’s Directed Energy Systems (DES) division is teaming with BAE Systems to develop the Mk 38 Mod 2 Tactical Laser System, combining a gun and a laser, for defence of US Navy ships. The Mk 38 Mod 2 Tactical Laser System couples a solid-state high-energy laser weapon module with the operational Mk 38 Machine Gun System.

Boeing has been building the truck mounted High Energy Laser Technology Demonstrator for the US Army to shoot UAVs and projectiles.

Although lasers have many advantages, they are not perfect – developing sufficient destructive power is a major drawback at the moment. Denel Dynamics chief scientist Dr Gerrit Viljoen recently said that although the cost per kill can be very low, lasers “are simply not all weather, they do not work in fog, rain, cloud and smoke. They also have long dwell times on the target which limits the rate at which they can shoot down threats.” Viljoen was referring specifically to ground-based active defence systems.