In December, the U.S. Army successfully tested a vehicle-mounted laser, destroying more than 90 mortar rounds and several unmanned aerial drones.
And an Army official tells Yahoo News that the test could have broad implications for the future, giving the U.S. an edge in low-cost and high-functioning defense technology.
“Although the laser can only engage one target at a time, we can lock in multiple strikes,” Terry Bauer, Program manager, Army High Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator (HEL MD), told Yahoo News during a phone interview.
“The number of available shots is extremely high compared to a conventional system,” Bauer said. “Whatever we aim at is what we hit.”
The Army first conducted tests using low power, 300-watt lasers in 2011. But the most recent test used a significantly more powerful 10-kilowatt laser powered by batteries and diesel fuel. Although the "High Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator" may not sound that intimidating, it was essentially perfect during its test, knocking out dozens of airborne targets.
The test was conducted at the High Energy Laser Systems Test Facility, White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico. Going forward, the Army says it plans to increase the power of lasers used up to 100 kilowatts, although alternative power sources will be needed to boost the increasingly potent solid state lasers.
“This 10-kilowatt is just a stepping stone toward more militarily significant lasers,” Bauer said.
The Army Space and Missile Defense Command released a video of the demonstration. In the first two minutes of the clip, you can see the laser system targeting a drone. At first, it appears to simply be following the aircraft’s flight pattern. However, since the laser itself is invisible to the naked eye, what appears to be plain video on the left of the screen is actual a live engagement taking place. Moments later, the drone crashes into the desert sands of New Mexico.
Later in the video, the mortar engagements provide the kind of fireworks more commonly expected by the untrained eye, as the mortars explode in midair after being targeted by the laser system.
Bauer said the mortar and UAV drones replicate battlefield conditions faced by U.S. forces on the battlefield and could prove increasingly useful as the use of military-styled drones become more prevalent in the near future. The lasers have another distinct advantage, moving at the speed of light, allowing the Army to stay focused on a quickly moving target.
The U.S. Navy has also experimented with lasers mounted aboard cruise vessels. In April 2013, the Navy announced plans to deploy a laser-mounted cruiser to the Persian Gulf in 2014. However, there are still technological limitations for their use, including unfriendly weather conditions.
Several components of the program also remain shrouded in mystery. The Army has not revealed how far its lasers can travel or how long they are able to sustain a defensive posture before needing to recharge. And while a focus on the technology is clearly growing, it remains to be determined just how many laser-mounted vehicles the Army plans to deploy in coming years.
The vehicle-mounted system was developed over four years. And while Bauer says it has been expensive for the military develop, its portability and lack of heavy, expensive munitions could make it cost-effective over time.
“It could be utilized and cost-effective over time,” he said. “In the end it could save considerable money.”
And who knows, it might not be long before lasers are squaring off against unmanned F-16s in the field of battle.