Planned European death ray may not need Brit boffinry brain-picking

Plenty of laser research already going on – but there's more than one way to melt a drone

Super-villain Dr Evil puts finger to lip in scheming manner, asks for one million dollars. Pic: New Line Cinema
Dr Evil's plans for a "laser" are not thought to be connected to the EU's military ambitions. If you don't get the reference, watch Austin Powers.
Pic: New Line cinema

The EU is planning to build a laser cannon with double the power of Britain's under-construction Dragonfire zapper, according to reports – but the general state of the tech doesn't automatically mean Europe will be trying to snaffle Brit raygun smarts.

The Sun broke the news that the EU Commission wants to, er, commission a 100kW laser cannon similar to the British Dragonfire project, the ultimate goal of which is the production of a 50kW laser turret.

€90m from the EU's Preparatory Action for Defence Research programme is reportedly being spent on the Eurozapper, with a slideshow seen by a Sun source stating: "Current European high power laser effectors rely mainly on non-European technology and are based on architectures that combine incoherent beams on the target."

Handily, this phrase leads the curious straight to an EU Defence Agency (EUDA) call-for-proposal paper from March (PDF, 47 pages), which says: "The EU thus risks becoming fully dependent on suppliers established in non-EU countries for this critical defence technology. This not only limits the strategic autonomy of the Member States but also generates security-of-supply risks. End-user restrictions imposed by non-EU nations (e.g., the US International Traffic in Arms and Export Administration Regulations (ITAR and EAR)) already endanger the security-of-supply of essential components of such high power laser systems."

Thus, says the EUDA, a "European" laser must immediately be researched and built, with the focus being on a product that can destroy airborne items including rockets, artillery shells and mortar bombs, drones and missiles, and also "rapid, small boats". The due date for this is given as 2027.

But an EU country is already doing laser blaster research – and it ain't the UK

As we reported last year, one of the companies involved in the Dragonfire consortium, MBDA (known by some cheeky folk as Missiles, Bombs and Dangerous Armaments, though it was formed out of a merger between Matra BAe Dynamics and France's Aerospatiale-Matra) has been doing R&D in Germany on laser weapons for more than a decade, but MBDA confirmed to us today that its privately funded research in the land of beer and sausages is not related to the UK work.

Starting in 2008, the German arm of MBDA built and tested a "high energy laser weapon demonstrator", according to MBDA puffery, including firing it at "mini UAVs" (drones) at distances of up to 2.5km. The laser reportedly drew 10kW during its 2010 trials, with MBDA claiming 50kW would be possible with extra funding.

The Dragonfire laser turret mockup at DSEI 2017. Pic: MBDA

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The Royal Aeronautical Society's magazine also has a handy overview of international laser weapon research, including the snippet that MBDA is already pondering the 100kW power level. This suggests that, far from the EU needing to snaffle British advances in laser weapon tech before Brexit takes place, they've already got a pretty good head start on the UK – albeit in a very similar but different method of generating a drone-blatting beam.

The Engineer magazine reports that MBDA's ambition is to build "on earlier investments in the area of coherent beam combining – a technique in which beams from multiple fibre laser modules are combined to form a single, powerful, high quality beam".

Coherent beaming, we are told, is the art of making a multi-source laser beam more powerful by ensuring the wavelength of each of the weaker beams that make it up is synchronised. Imagine an oscilloscope with the laser output displayed as your classic wiggly line. That's the output of one beam generator. Now add in a few more wiggly lines to represent each of the different beam generators. Unless you make an effort to synchronise each of the beams' waves (the peaks and troughs, on our imaginary oscilloscope), you're effectively losing some of your potential power output.

We understand that the EU is more interested in incoherent beam laser tech, on the basis that it doesn't matter if the beam isn't synchronised if you've only got one of them. In addition, the German firm is also using mirrors and lenses to focus its beam, whereas we are told the UK's blinding boffins are using mirrors only to reduce losses.

An MBDA spokesman told The Register: "Through the laser programmes in Germany and the UK (Dragonfire), MBDA is the clear European leader in laser weapon technologies. MBDA Germany is not a part of the UK Dragonfire Capability Demonstration Programme (CDP). MBDA is working with its respective national customers in order to assess the technical and operational feasibility for introducing DEW (Directed Energy Weapon). The Dragonfire capability demonstration programme aims to create sovereign capability in the UK and focuses on coherent beam combining technology that is different to that used in the MBDA German programme."

Although MBDA is the lead company in the Dragonfire consortium, the actual laser is supplied by miltech boffinry outfit Qinetiq, which El Reg will be pumping for future updates on all things bright, shiny and melty. ®




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