It's been 114 years since Orson Welles first described the nefarious "Heat Ray" in The War of the Worlds. And finally — finally — the US military is on the cusp of deploying a mobile high-energy weapon of its very own. Luckily, it's designed to fry incoming artillery and mortar threats, not the whole of a freshly conquered civilisation.
The US military has been working on various iterations of laser-based weapons since the mid-1990s, but development has been slow going. Transitioning laser technology from a lab setting to active combat is no easy feat. Recently, however, the US Defense Department shifted development funding from messy liquid-based lasers to the more portable and stable solid-state variety, a move that is already paying dividends. Northrop Grumman showcased its 13.4KW Gamma laser cannon in May, and the US Navy set dinghies alight with its Maritime Laser Demonstrator in 2011. Then, last week, Boeing showed off what is essentially a laser cannon on wheels: The High Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator (HEL MD).
The HEL MD is currently in Phase II of its development. The High Energy Laser Technology Demonstrator (HEL TD) vehicle was developed during Phase I. Now, funded by a contract $US38 million contract by the US Army, a 10KW solid state laser will be installed atop the vehicle, an eight-wheeled Oshkosh Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Truck, with a 500hp Caterpillar C-15 engine capable of toting up to 16 tonnes.
Sitting atop the demonstrator vehicle's roof, like the eye of Sauron, is the HEL MD's beam director, a dome-shaped turret. It will aim and focus the 10KW (and eventually 100KW) laser beams to provide 360-degree and full-sky fire cover. At the White Sands missile test range last year, designers confirmed the system's ability to effectively acquire, track and target moving projectiles.
As a self-contained system with a virtually unlimited supply of ammo (assuming you don't run out of electricity), the HEL MD is designed primarily for use in Forward Operating Bases, port installations and air bases. It will defend against incoming rockets, artillery fire and mortar rounds.
These weapons have been giving military defences fits since their advent, because they do not generally require a line of sight to engage. Plush, the shot stays airborne for such a short duration that a near-instant counter is necessary. The HEL MD's ability to track both hot (rocket-propelled) and cold threats — combined with its shots travelling at the speed of light — could soon provide a nearly-impenetrable defence. What's more, the massive 50cm aperture and on-board targeting optics should allow the next HEL MD iteration to pull double duty for ISR missions and as a ground-based UAV hunter.
"The Boeing HEL MD program is applying the best of solid-state laser technology to ensure the army has speed-of-light capability to defend against rockets, artillery, mortars and unmanned aerial threats — both today and into the future," Mike Rinn, Boeing Directed Energy Systems vice president and program director, said in a press statement.
Phase II testing is expected to continue for another three years and, by 2018, Boeing hopes to have the finished system ready for army review. If army brass signs off at that point, the next conflict will have a lot more Pew-Pewing. [Boeing - DTIC - Boeing 2 - SMDC]