At the Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) 2023, Raytheon presented on 13 September a 15-kilowatt high-energy laser counter-UAV system mounted on the UK Wolfhound armoured vehicle that can eliminate a swarm of three unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in 34 seconds, with each fire having a cost equivalent to a “cup of coffee” according to Jeff Newsom, Raytheon’s business development director for counter-UAV. 

The limitless rechargeable magazine and zero-logistics burden of the system make a strong contrast with other technologies. In other layers of air defence the cost of operation vastly exceeds the cost of the UAV they are designed to counter, with the price of individual air-defence missiles higher than that of loitering munitions or repurposed commercial drones.

With the ubiquity of low price drones in conflicts such as the War in Ukraine, layered air defence systems have a place in the future for low operation cost solutions. 

Raytheon has taken a proven technology, its multispectral targeting system, of which there are 6000 units already in combat operations, and put the beam director for the high energy system within the combat proven production system.

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The level of accuracy for the systems derives is high – allowing to the operator to pick out individual components on the drone to target and reducing collateral damage – as it needs to be to be effective; the high-energy laser system must remain on the target for an average of five seconds to successfully disable the drone, steady pin-point accuracy is essential from the system.

“Many times the drone operator that’s flying the drone has no idea they are being affected in any way until all of a sudden they start losing control,” said Newsom.

Integrating the high-energy laser in the UK

Raytheon was contracted in 2021 to develop the laser for the Wolfhound armoured vehicle as a part of UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) Land Demonstrator programme, and are delivering the first system in tandem with the opening of an advance laser integration centre in Livingstone, Scotland. “The arrival of this transformative technology is an important milestone in our collaboration with the MoD on using directed energy to address a variety of threats, from drones and UAVs to more complex missile systems,” said Julie Finlayson-Odell, managing director of weapons and sensors at Raytheon UK. 

Multiple field tests, including those conducted in extreme heat, cold, rain, sleet, and snow, confirmed that the high-energy laser weapon system met its requirements. This system effectively acquired, tracked, targeted, and destroyed dozens of drone targets in short-range assault, swarm attack, and long-range threat scenarios over four days of live-fire exercises in the US earlier in 2023.

Raytheon has delivered a total of eight high-energy laser weapons to the US military, that have then been used to defeat more than 400 targets in 25,000 operational hours, according to a release from the company on 13 September

“This system is a culmination of decades of investment, research and innovation and its arrival reflects our continued commitment to help fulfil a key strategic objective of the UK’s Integrated Review,” said Finlayson-Odell, “which is to understand how directed energy weapons can safely and effectively operate alongside other elements of the UK’s armed forces.”