A German company has brought us one step closer to the kinds of shootouts only seen in Sci-Fi films. Düsseldorf-based Rheinmetall Defense recently tested a 50kW, high-energy laser at their proving ground facility in Switzerland. According to the company, the laser passed the test with “flying colours.”
The system isn’t actually a single laser but two laser modules mounted onto Revolver Gun air defense turrets made by Oerlikon and attached to additional power modules. The laser modules are 30 kW and 20 kW, but a Beam Superimposing Technology (BST) combines two lasers to focus in a “superimposed, cumulative manner” that wreaks havoc on its targets.
First, the system sliced through a 15mm- (~0.6 inches) thick steel girder from a kilometer away. Then, from a distance of two kilometers, it shot down a handful of drones as they nose-dived toward the surface at 50 meters per second. The laser’s radar, a widely used system called Skyguard, was capable of tracking the drones through their descent up to three kilometers away.
For its finale, the laser’s ability to track a very small ballistic target was demonstrated. It honed in on and destroyed a steel ball 82mm in diameter traveling at 50 meters per second. The small ball was meant to simulate an incoming mortar round. Rheinmetall says their laser will reduce the time required for C-RAM – Counter Rocket, Artillery, and Mortar measures – to a matter of seconds, even in adverse weather conditions. In fact, weather at the Ochsenboden Proving Ground in Switzerland where the demonstration was carried out included ice, rain, snow, and extremely bright sunlight – far from ideal.
Rheinmetall had tested a 10kW high-energy laser last year. Next year the company plans on testing a 60kW “technology demonstrator.” In addition to the more powerful laser, the system will be packing 35mm Ahead Revolver Guns. With the combined systems Rheinmetall hopes to explore ways in which a laser and an automatic cannon can be used together. And the company is already looking past the 60kW, saying in a press release that “nothing stands in the way of a future [high-energy laser] weapon system with a 100kW output.” Lastly, they’ll begin making these high-energy laser systems mobile by mounting a laser onto a TM170 armored vehicle. Their ultimate goal is to mount the lasers on vehicles operating in the open.
While minuscule compared to the 200 petawatts of laser power (ten to the fifteenth watts!) that scientists in Europe plan to use for experiments, the 50kW laser seems quite ready to make a difference on the battlefield. Apart from science fiction novels, the idea of using high-energy lasers have been considered for weaponry since the mid 20th century. Countries such as the US, Russia, China, among others, are developing their own high-energy laser programs. Whether or not we hear about future demonstrations will be a matter of national security rather than technological success. I think it’s safe to assume this is one arms race that’s soon to heat up.