UK reveals first laser weapon DragonFire which shoots downs drones

Technology cuts through incoming targets at the speed of light

The DragonFire laser-directed energy weapon (LDEW) system in use during a trial at the Ministry of Defence's Hebrides Range, Scotland. Reuters
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UK military scientists have shot down drones using a new laser weapon for the first time, Defence Secretary Grant Shapps has said.

DragonFire cuts through incoming targets at the speed of light.

Writing on social media platform X on Saturday, Mr Shapps said the UK’s first laser weapon will prove “vital” to British defences in the future.

“Capable of being fitted to future warships, it will be a vital British weapon as the threat of drone warfare grows,” he said.

“DragonFire is just one of the potentially revolutionary capabilities we’re investing in to gain an advantage against our enemies.”

The technology was successfully trialled recently at the Ministry of Defence’s (MoD) Hebrides Range, achieving the UK’s first high-power firing of a laser weapon against aerial targets.

The laser delivers powerful precision over long ranges, equivalent to hitting a £1 coin from a kilometre away.

Its range is classified but the MoD said the weapon is capable of engaging with any visible target.

It works by using an intense beam of light to cut through its target, but costs typically less than £10 per shot. Traditional missiles cost substantially more. Sea Vipers, which were used by the British navy to shoot drones and missiles in the Red Sea recently, cost more than £1 million each by comparison.

The recent demonstration in the Hebrides builds on a series of successful trials.

“These trials have seen us take a huge step forward in realising the potential opportunities and understanding the threats posed by directed energy weapons,” said Dr Paul Hollinshead, chief executive of the MoD's Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl).

“With our decades of knowledge, skills, and operational experience, Dstl’s expertise is critical to helping the armed forces prepare for the future.”

The technology will now be transitioned from the research environment to the battlefield.

Drones have been used in warfare for decades.

The first unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) were developed in Britain and the US during the First World War, according to London's Imperial War Museum.

However, neither the UK-developed small radio aircraft, Aerial Target, or the American aerial torpedo, Kettering Bug, were used operationally during the war.

Drones were first deployed on a large scale in the Vietnam War, when they were “used in a range of new roles, such as acting as decoys in combat, launching missiles against fixed targets and dropping leaflets for psychological operations,” according to the museum.

They are now playing an increasing role in conflicts such as Russia’s war against Ukraine and in attacks on Red Sea shipping lanes by Houthi militants.

The UK recently announced it will allocate £200 million to manufacture drones for the Ukrainian military.

And last week Latvia’s defence chief said the Baltic nation is making progress in assembling a coalition of almost 20 countries to arm Ukrainian forces with “thousands” of unmanned aerial vehicles.

Ukraine is also building a fleet of naval drones, which it has deployed to target Russian vessels in the Black Sea.

Ukraine has set out to produce a million modified so-called first-person view UAVs for use on the battlefield this year, as well as more than 10,000 mid-range and 1,000 long-range strike drones.

Updated: January 20, 2024, 3:36 PM