British military laser death ray cannon contract still awarded, MoD confirms

Sound familiar? Yes, you read it on El Reg last July

The Ministry of Defence has today re-announced for the third time that it has awarded a £30m contract to build a great big feck-off laser cannon for zapping the Queen's enemies.

Originally awarded in July 2016 to the Dragonfire consortium, the Laser Directed Energy Weapons (LDEW) contract immediately stalled after a challenge to the contract award by an unknown number of losing companies.

The MoD eventually settled the contract dispute last September, stating at the time that the deal had gone through.

While exciting, in the way that setting about an old shed with a sledgehammer and a couple of gallons of petrol is exciting, the LDEW project is certainly not new.

The Dragonfire consortium – made up of French-headquartered missile firm MBDA, BAE Systems, Leonardo (formerly known as Finmeccanica, parent company of infamous British helicopter firm AgustaWestland), Cambridge-based Marshall Defence and Aerospace, and Hampshire-based defence research company Qinetiq – is charged with building the demonstrator weapon, and a working prototype is hoped for by 2019.

It will have to meet five criteria to satisfy defence chiefs, including tracking targets in all weathers, maintaining sustained operation over a period of time, and various safety-related criteria, mostly aimed at ensuring the laser's operators or innocent bystanders don't get accidentally fried.

Harriet Baldwin, minister for defence procurement, said in a canned statement: "The UK has long enjoyed a reputation as a world leader in innovation and it is truly ground-breaking projects like the Laser Directed Energy Weapon which will keep this country ahead of the curve."

SNP MP Douglas Chapman, a member of Parliament's Defence Select Committee, told The Register: "I'm no longer surprised at the MoD's unerring ability to respond to criticism with diversions: in this case coming out with a rehashed version of a press release from last year to make up for a total lack of substance behind the assertion that 2017 is the 'Year of the Navy'.

"Though this time even seasoned Navy watchers will admit announcing research into a shiny new piece of kit at a time when the fleet is at a historic low of 17 frigates and destroyers is slightly putting the cart before the proverbial horse: it's time they got on with signing the contract to build the T26 in the summer as promised."

The obvious long-term practical application for the laser would be aboard a warship, and perhaps one of the first aged Type 23 frigates to be retired in the next five or six years could have her hull life extended to serve as a trials platform.

As the press get excited over the new laser cannon, however, it is important to remember that the Type 45 air defence destroyers are not completely reliable when operating in warm seas, HMS Queen Elizabeth's sea trials date is quietly slipping back, F-35 deliveries still continue at a pathetic drip-feed rate, and the RN still has no replacement anti-ship missiles lined up for when its current weapons are retired in 2018 – though sources tell El Reg that the UK is exploring options for this with France.

Various news outlets including the BBC, the Sun and the Daily Star (traditionally a very fertile ground for planted Andy McNabb-type tales of carefully anonymised derring-do from the front line) decided to run this hoary old news about the laser cannon today as if it was actually new.

It's one thing to get excited over a new giant zapper but it's begun to wear a bit thin after the third repetition without any actual progress having been made. ®

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