The low-tech yet lethal mortar, used from medieval wars to modern-day Afghanistan, faces a science fiction-style threat as companies spanning Boeing Co. to Rheinmetall AG test lasers that could consign it to history.
Boeing has built a laser that can shoot down a salvo of seven mortar bombs, said Mike Rinn, vice president for directed energy. Israel’s Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, whose Iron Dome missile battery was developed to counter Palestinian rockets, is working on a laser-based device called Iron Beam.
Though relatively cheap and simple, the limited flight time of mortars and short-range rockets makes them tough to hit. Laser technology, first tested by the Pentagon more than a decade ago, promises to provide a shield at less expense than systems such as Iron Dome, which can cost $70,000 per missile.
“Solid-state lasers have made tremendous advances in the last 10 years,” said Michael Cathcraft, principal research scientist at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.
Boeing, which has worked on laser weapons including one mounted on a 747 jumbo, last year demonstrated the latest version of a battlefield anti-mortar system to U.S. Army staff, Rinn said in London at a DefenceIQ conference on directed energy, a field that includes the laser-weapons sector.
The trial took place at the White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, near the site where the first atomic bomb was detonated.
The system, which can also shoot down drones, used a 10-kilowatt laser, Rinn said, with a more operationally representative planned within the next two years delivering 50 kW. That’s equivalent to the power produced by 500 regular household lightbulbs, focused on a single coin-sized spot.
Dusseldorf-based Rheinmetall, maker of the main canon for Germany’s 65 metric-ton Leopard 2 battle tank, has also shown that lasers can shoot down mortars, vice president Fabian Ochsner said at the conference.
German interest in protecting military bases increased as it sent troops to Afghanistan, leading the defense ministry to order Rheinmetall’s Mantis gun-based air-defense system, which Ochsner said could be augmented with lasers. The country is Europe’s second-largest contributor of troops to NATO’s Afghan mission after Britain, with 3,000 personnel deployed.
One of the attractions of the new technology is that firing a laser is relatively cheap once development expenses have been overcome, Ochsner said. “The requirement for a low cost-per-shot system is definitely a given,” he said.
Israel, which has relied on the Iron Dome system to intercept projectiles fired from the Palestinian Territories and Lebanon for almost three years, may also be shifting to laser use. State-owned Rafael next month plans to unveil details of its Iron Beam technology at the Singapore Air Show.
“Iron Beam destroys a target either by heating the target surface to the weakening point and causing it it to fail under operating stress, or by burning through the skin,” the company said in an e-mailed response to questions.
One of the hurdles for laser weapons will be transitioning to operational status. The Pentagon in the 1990s embarked on the Tactical High Energy Laser in a rush effort to protect Israel from projectiles fired from Lebanon, before halting the project, while the 747-mounted Airborne Laser was scrapped because of operational shortcomings.
“Every year, when we are just ready to deploy a new directed energy system system, something goes wrong,” Douglas Beason, a former chief scientist for the U.S. military’s Air Force Space Command, said at the London conference.