It can take down hostile UAVs using nothing more than a highly concentrated beam of light. Its ammunition costs next to nothing. And, with a sufficient power source, it can fire indefinitely.
Raytheon Technologies’ High-Energy Laser Weapons System, or HELWS, is making its way to the UK. A demonstrator of the system will be installed on the UK Wolfhound land vehicle and provided to the Ministry of Defence for a six-month trial starting in the spring of 2023. The technology could significantly improve the UK’s capabilities in directed energy, fulfilling a key strategic objective of the recent UK Integrated Review.
“Directed energy has been an aim of the defence industry for the past 15 to 20 years, but only now has it started to get out of the laboratory, into the field and ready to be used,” said Mike Cooper, Raytheon UK’s head of Strategy and Business Development (Novel Systems). “Leveraging Raytheon Technologies' proven, operational technology in our HELWS trials will fast-track the development of UK directed-energy solutions and accelerate our delivery to the MOD.”
Raytheon UK's proposition is a modular and open solution that enables new UK technology to be inserted as it becomes mature, allowing future open competition.
Investment in Novel Weapons
High-energy laser weapons are part of a group of novel weapons that use directed energy, which, provided an ample power source, gives military personnel virtually unlimited ammunition.
This is an area seeing significant UK investment; the government announced in March 2021 that it will commit £6.6 billion of defence funding over the next four years to researching and developing novel weapons such as hypersonic missiles and laser weapons as part of its directed energy programme. Driving investment is the growing threat from low-cost systems, such as unmanned aerial vehicles, rockets, artillery shells and mortars.
“There's a major cost differential in the amount of money we must spend to defend ourselves against relatively inexpensive threats,” said Toby Marshall, Raytheon UK’s Novel Weapons capture lead.
“It's easy for an adversary to launch 30 to 40 UAVs at the same cost as one defensive missile,” Marshall said. “But by having a highly accurate high-energy laser or directed-energy system, where the cost per shot is significantly lower, you can defeat whole swarms of these threats. This is because, unlike conventional weapons systems, you have an infinite arsenal.”
High-paced, Low-risk Solution
Raytheon Technologies, Raytheon UK’s U.S. parent, has substantial experience in developing and fielding high-energy lasers with thousands of operational hours under its belt. In March 2021, Raytheon Intelligence & Space, a Raytheon Technologies business, was awarded a $15.5 million contract to build and deliver an upgraded version of its HELWS for the U.S. Air Force.
Raytheon UK’s ability to bring Raytheon Intelligence & Space’s 15-kilowatt laser system to the UK minimises programme risk, enabling the company to deliver a high-paced, low-risk, cost-effective technical solution for the UK MOD.
While the laser itself will come from overseas, much of the demonstrator’s capability is being designed and developed in the UK, including the command and control system, GPS antenna, external tracker/radar, safety, training and integration.
“We’ve formed a Raytheon UK-led capability team comprising world-leading defence company expertise to help deliver the programme,” said Cooper.
This team, which includes small-to-medium sized companies Fraser Nash, NP Aerospace and LumOptica, will help Raytheon UK deliver the HELWS into UK service.
“One of the things we do really well as a company is create fully collaborative team environments,” said Cooper. “We're leading a nationwide team that will deliver a Raytheon UK-designed command and control system out of our Waddington base, provide systems engineering through our Harlow facility, and we've got power management support delivered from our Glenrothes site in Scotland.”
NP Aerospace will integrate the laser onto vehicles in Coventry, and Bristol-based Fraser Nash and LumOptica will provide system safety, UK SME laser expertise and independently assess the solution. Going forward, Raytheon UK intends to collaborate with additional industry partners.
The result will be a system largely developed in the UK – a sovereign capability with “freedom of action.”
“In essence, this means that we will have our own ability to use the system as required, implementing UK rules of engagement and understanding, and modifying the command and control systems to meet operational needs,” said Cooper. “This is important as the UK government aspires to have an indigenous on-shore capability in all directed energy weapons.”
The Evolution of the Battlespace
The arrival of the demonstrator in the UK will cap what has been a 20-year quest for the defence sector to bring laser weapons to the battlefield. Part of the difficulty has been building not just the laser itself but integrating all the other capabilities such a weapon requires.
“It's not just about having a high-power laser. In fact, that’s relatively easy to build,” said Marshall. “User accuracy and safety are a priority; the critical elements are being able to detect the target, track very accurately and then engage the target with the laser system. All these mechanisms, such as the precision targeting and detection, logistics and operational safety will be supplied by our Raytheon UK team.”
Supporting the UK MOD’s novel weapons programme and UK prosperity agenda, Raytheon UK is sufficiently placed to help realise the UK’s first HELWS capability, enabling new technology, knowledge and expertise and developing sustainable, high-skilled jobs within the UK supply chain.
“By 2025, we will have placed the country at the forefront of this emerging technology, equipping British frontline armed forces with the best affordable sovereign solutions. While this is a one-off demonstrator system, our long-term goal is to provide this capability as a UK sovereign system for domestic and overseas customers,” said Alex Rose-Parfitt, engineering director, Raytheon UK.