laser beam

Scotland weapons hub will develop high-energy anti-drone lasers

Image credit: Dreamstime

Scotland will be home to a European hub for the development of high-energy laser weaponry against small attack drones.

The defence and intelligence technology firm Raytheon UK has revealed its plans to build an "advanced laser integration centre” in Livingston, some 15 miles from Edinburgh.

The centre will focus on the testing, fielding and maintenance of defensive high-energy laser (HEL) weapons, that will counter the threat posed by drones, which has been highlighted by the use of this technology during combat in Ukraine. 

The firm’s president of electronic warfare systems, Annabel Flores, told the BBC that “demand is spiking for cost-effective lasers” able to defeat “asymmetric” threats from drones, rockets and mortars.

Last year, Britain’s armed forces began trials using laser weapons designed by the company, which were small enough to be installed on UK Wolfhound land vehicles.

The invasion of Ukraine and subsequent armed confrontations between Russian and Ukrainian forces have demonstrated the success of small commercial drones, which have been used to direct and correct artillery fire as well as to carry explosives. They also come at a low cost, often being in the 100-euro (£85) range. 

The use of drones has been so successful for the Ukrainian forces that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has recently requested public “dronations” to help the country build an army of 200 military reconnaissance drones as part of the war effort.

"The thought is coming into how do you defend against them effectively, making our ongoing conversations with customers much deeper and much more pronounced," Flores said. 

To counter this threat, Raytheon UK has developed high-energy lasers that target drones. The company stated that the laser system has 20,000 hours of operational use, but Flores would not be drawn on whether the system had been "used in anger" yet.

While the firm would also not be drawn on how much it would ultimately invest - citing pending financial results - the BBC has reported it has already spent about £20m developing the Livingston site, which could potentially create "hundreds of jobs" in the future.

However, despite the appeal of the idea, the weapons developed by Raytheon do not resemble the lasers of popular sci-fi, as their drone-destroying beams are invisible.

"Hollywood makes it look very, very interesting and very dramatic. And this is a little different. It can look a little anti-climactic," Flores said.

The company said the announcement was a "statement of faith" in both the UK's engineering sector and the important nature of the technology, which Raytheon believes could make up as much as 30 per cent of future air defence infrastructure.

The UK has recently been increasing its investment in drone technology, not just for defence purposes. Earlier this week, the government revealed its plans to build the world's largest automated drone superhighway and last March, Mobile network O2 and drone firm Skyfarer announced they were creating the infrastructure for a new drone network, intended to facilitate fast delivery of Covid-19 supplies and blood samples.

The announcement of the advanced weapons hub comes shortly after the Ministry of Defence announced that a £160 million contract had been awarded to Raytheon UK to support the training and development of Royal Navy personnel at Scotland’s HM Naval Base Clyde.

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