Tech

DragonFire vs. US Laser Weapons: Why Drones Get a Pass

Recently, as per reports from British media outlets, the British Ministry of Defence has successfully deployed a high-energy laser weapon named DragonFire for the inaugural time in a test to intercept an aerial target. A spokesperson for the British Ministry of Defence stated that the precision of DragonFire is sufficient to strike a coin at a distance of one kilometer. It is anticipated that this test will aid in the development of a cost-effective anti-aircraft weapon to counter the escalating threat posed by small combat drones.

Additionally, the British Ministry of Defence has disclosed that both the British Army and the Royal Navy are contemplating integrating this technology as a pivotal component of their forthcoming air defense capabilities. The DragonFire system, which discharges a 10-second lethal laser, possesses the capability to eliminate small drones, yet incurs a cost equivalent to merely an hour’s power consumption of a conventional water heater. This undeniably represents the most economically viable means of countering drones presently available.

While the British Ministry of Defence has expressed optimism regarding the future prospects of neutralizing drones with laser weaponry, the U.S. naval forces engaged in combatting Houthi drones in the Red Sea have refrained from employing laser weapons. Instead, they continue to rely on costly missiles to intercept inexpensive Houthi drones. Despite the possession of six laser weapons by the US Navy since the onset of 2023 and numerous sea trials, these weapons have not been employed in actual combat scenarios.

Various justifications exist for the reluctance of the U.S. Navy to utilize laser weapons, including the fact that the flight trajectory of Houthi drones lies beyond the effective range of ship-based laser weapons. Moreover, the primary targets of the Houthis are civilian cargo vessels in the Red Sea. Even when a drone is perceived as a threat to a U.S. Navy combat vessel, fleet commanders prioritize safety by opting to intercept the drone from a greater distance. In this context, considerations of cost reduction and efficiency pale in comparison to safety concerns. In essence, despite the impressive cost-effectiveness demonstrated by laser weapons in trials, their efficacy in actual combat remains untested.

Furthermore, to realize the full potential of laser weapons as a formidable countermeasure against UAVs in practical combat scenarios, advancements in various technologies are imperative.

Although the United Kingdom has not disclosed the range of its DragonFire laser cannon, speculation abounds regarding the effective range of the Helios laser cannon (60 kW) deployed by the US Navy against medium-sized UAVs weighing approximately 100 kilograms, estimated to be no more than 10 kilometers, with a conservative estimate suggesting it to be even less than 5 kilometers. Consequently, the U.S. Department of Defense aspires to enhance the potency of maritime laser weapons to over 120 kW in the future. A lower power output would render them incapable of neutralizing targets from a distance of 10 kilometers, while proximity to the target would render them vulnerable during engagements against swarms of drones. Moreover, the influence of smoke and dust must be factored into real combat situations, with adverse weather conditions such as sandstorms significantly curtailing the range of laser weapons.

Nevertheless, despite the nascent stage of development of laser weapons, they emerge as the most viable solution for countering UAVs in the foreseeable future.

Traditional UAV jamming equipment has proven increasingly inadequate in confronting the UAV threat in actual combat scenarios. These electronic countermeasure systems primarily rely on suppressing signal strength to counter UAVs, particularly targeting the suppression or deception of satellite navigation signals. However, UAVs have evolved to resist electronic suppression through techniques such as frequency hopping, encryption, strapdown, ad hoc networking, image navigation, and inertial navigation. This resilience against electronic countermeasure equipment is consistently demonstrated from conflict zones ranging from Russia and Ukraine to Gaza. Even in the low-tech confrontations witnessed in northern Myanmar, rebel factions possess a diverse array of technical means to counter the anti-drone jammers deployed by the Myanmar military.

Given the escalating difficulty in suppressing UAVs through electronic countermeasures, the imperative for physically neutralizing UAVs on the battlefield becomes increasingly evident. Presently, anti-aircraft missiles or programmable small-caliber automatic artillery shells represent viable options, albeit at considerable expense. Even relatively economical programmable small-caliber anti-aircraft shells may command exorbitant costs, with a single burst shot costing tens of thousands of dollars. The proliferation of inexpensive drones would undeniably inflate the defender’s expenditure. Israel’s historical employment of rockets against Hamas serves as a pertinent example, underscoring the inefficacy of the costly Iron Dome system against cheap, domestically manufactured rockets.

Laser weapons, characterized by their instantaneous speed of engagement, pinpoint accuracy, formidable power, and cost-effectiveness, emerge as the quintessential armament against drones or rockets, as evident in current circumstances. In large-scale conflicts, the contest often hinges on cost-effective confrontations between disparate systems, where inexpensive yet efficacious conventional weaponry assumes pivotal significance in securing victory.

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