According to a Department of Defense contract notice filed in August 2021, the US Office of Naval Research just ordered a “compact, portable” laser weapon system. In other words, it’s essentially supporting the development of a real-life ray gun. The Counter-Unmanned Air Systems High Energy Laser Weapon System (or C-UAS HELWS for short) will be used by the US Navy to shoot down drones.


Laser weapons are becoming a reality on the battlefield; in 2016, the US Navy deployed the LAWS laser on the USS Ponce. However, we’ve only seen huge weapons — so-called laser guns – placed on ships or other vehicles so far. Miniaturization is coming.


Drones are highly vulnerable to lasers. A focussed beam of light can quickly heat up the exterior of a drone, causing structural collapse and leading it to crash. For a fixed-wing drone, this could imply destroying one of the wings. A quadcopter-style drone might be brought down by a laser scorching a plastic or metal arm supporting one of its propellers. A laser might also ignite a drone’s liquid fuel supply or blind its optical sensors, which are used to guide it to a target by a human controller.


Lasers provide a number of other advantages. Lasers do not need to be “led” to their target because they travel at the speed of light. They’re also unaffected by gravity, which is important when dealing with long-range ballistic projectiles (such as bullets or cannon shells). They can’t run out of ammunition, however, though the generator that drives the lasers could run out of fuel or a battery could die.


The YAL-1 Airborne Laser Testbed was one of the first laser weapons. The YAL-1 was a Boeing 747 aeroplane with a laser weapon in the nose and chemical tanks in the body that was developed in the mid-2000s. The AN/SEQ-3 laser weapon system is a more current (and considerably smaller) weapon (LaWS). LaWS is the size of a shipping container and produces 30 kilowatts of power, making it effective against drones. Today’s lasers are much more compact, to the point that they can be mounted on a Stryker combat vehicle.


So how big will the new weapon be?


MZA is developing a transportable laser weapon system for defence against hostile unmanned aerial vehicles under a contract with the Navy. In everyday usage, transportable is not synonymous with portable, which is the word used in the contract and denotes that it may be carried by one person. The weapon isn’t really transportable in the traditional sense. For initial emplacement and/or removal to different places, the entire system will require machinery – trucks, cranes, and so on.


So, it’s not quite a laser rifle yet, but more of a laser heavy weapon like the.50 Cal M2 machinegun, which weighs 84 pounds plus 44 pounds for the tripod and another 35 pounds for each box of ammunition.


The new weapon will be smaller than the current smallest laser, Raytheon’s High-Energy Laser Weapon System, which was developed in 2019. After the Air Force challenged Raytheon to design a laser small enough to carry on a JLTV, a military dune buggy, rather than prior weapons that required a big eight-wheeled vehicle, the weapon was built in just 24 months. It is made up of five major components. HELWS is made up of four subsystem boxes that are each about the size of a big suitcase and a sensor ball called the Beam Director which is about the size of a basketball.


Each of the weapon’s four subsystems is critical. The laser unit generates the beam, the energy magazine is the battery, the power system converts battery power into bursts of intense energy, and the thermal management system deals with waste heat. When trying to keep a laser dot stationary on a moving drone target, the beam director points the laser towards the target, which is not easy.


Commercial Technologies helped get the HELWS to the desired size


Fibre laser amplifiers are a relatively new technology that has been paired with numerous kW-class beams from shoe-box sized amplifiers to form a single, more powerful beam used for precision cutting and welding around the world. Similarly, thanks to advancements in electric vehicles, off-the-shelf battery technology has substantially improved. Another example is the energy storage capacity they obtained from upgraded lithium-ion batteries developed for hybrid vehicles. They can store hundreds of seconds of clean, on-demand, and rechargeable HEL power in a small box because to them.


This does give you a sense of how difficult the following step will be. All five elements will need to be scaled down to the right size. The whole weapon will be impractically enormous if the laser and power system are matchbox-sized but the batteries and thermal management still require bags. Before the US Navy can actualize its vision of hand-carried laser handguns, more generational advancements at the subsystem level are required.


There’s no denying that laser weapons are progressing rapidly. They’ve been on the horizon since the 1960s, and the US military shot down its first drone with a laser in 1973, after which there were a number of false starts (remember the Airborne Laser on a 747 that was meant to shoot down ballistic missiles in the 1990s?) They’ve progressed from ship installations to dune buggy transportable and smaller in the previous five years. The new weapon is slated to be finished in August 2023, according to MZA.


We still don’t have laser rifles. They are, however, coming closer, much like portable railguns.