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UK team shows off 'Dragonfire' laser weapon design

20 Sep 2017

MBDA-led consortium aiming for field trials in 2019 and future deployment on Royal Navy’s Type 45 destroyers.

MBDA Systems, the missile maker that is jointly owned by three Europe-headquartered defense companies, has unveiled the design for its “Dragonfire” laser weapon for the first time.

Under development through a UK-based consortium thanks to a £30 million contract awarded by the UK’s Ministry of Defence (MOD) earlier this year, the beam-directing turret design made its debut at last week’s Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI 2017) arms fair, held every two years at London's Excel Centre.

The DSEI exhibition in London is a controversial date in the trade-show calendar, with London Mayor Sadiq Khan among those known to oppose the four-day weapons fair that attracts more than 30,000 visitors every two years.

Laser emitter
According to MBDA spokesman Brian Colwill, the aim is to conduct field trials of the directed energy weapon in 2019, followed by an at-sea demonstration. After that, MBDA’s hope is that the hardware will be selected by the Royal Navy, perhaps for deployment on its new fleet of “Type 45” destroyers.

The beam director element for Dragonfire is being provided by Leonardo – the Italy-headquartered defense firm that owns a 25 per cent share of MBDA. It is said to bring together a powerful laser emitter provided by UK-based defense technology specialist QinetiQ, alongside “world-class” electro-optics needed for target identification and tracking.

“MBDA is bringing prime weapon system delivery experience and advanced weapon system command and control (C2) and image processing capability to UK Dragonfire, in addition to co-ordinating the overall effort,” stated the missile systems company.

The consortium presented a full-scale version of the beam director at a dedicated DSEI exhibition booth, with half-scale models featured on the Leonardo, MBDA and QinetiQ stands. Other partners involved in Dragonfire include Arke, BAE Systems, Marshall and GKN. BAE Systems and Airbus each own a 37.5 per cent share in MBDA.

Known officially as the Laser Directed Energy Weapon (LDEW) Capability Demonstrator Programme (CDP), the development effort should provide the MOD with a new “very short-range” air defense capability, the ability to counter-attack hostile unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and protection for allies from mortar and artillery attacks.

Scalable power
MBDA’s operation in Germany has previously been involved in demonstrator projects to develop high-power laser weapons, although those efforts were typically based around high-power fiber lasers provided by IPG Photonics.

Qinetiq and MBDA say that the key benefit of the Dragonfire design is a base system that is both highly adaptable and highly scalable in terms of output power. “As such it offers a range of different engagement solutions depending on the tactical scenario, these include tracking, deterring, dazzling the sensors of a potential threat, up to damaging or destroying it,” the firms claim.

While the UK-built system is still in the development phase, the US Navy has been trialing a 30 kW laser weapon aboard the USS Ponce for the past three years. And earlier this summer the US Army and giant defense contractor Raytheon said that they had mounted similar weapons on both an Apache helicopter and a Stryker armored vehicle – indicating the potential utility of the technology across the armed services.

Corporate video - MBDA's Brian Colwill shows off the Dragonfire laser turret design in London:

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