October 5, 2010: Recently, the U.S. Navy successfully tested a laser weapon that pierced the hulls of small boats hundreds of meters away. But this was a static (on land) test against immobile targets. Next, the MLD (Maritime Laser Demonstration) will be mounted on a ship for more realistic tests. MLD is scalable (it can use higher energy levels) up to 100 kilowatts. This raises a major issue; power supply. MLD will only work effectively in an all-electric ship (where the engines produce just electricity, and all ship equipment is electric powered.) Some all electric warships are already in service, and most navies are planning to build only this type of shipboard power plant in the future. At that point, MLD will be a practical weapon.
MLD was developed based on the earlier THEL (Tactical High Energy Laser) system. This was a joint U.S.-Israel project from the 1990s. Israel eventually dropped out because of the cost, and slow progress. But by 2005, THEL was looking good, and a smaller, commercial version, Skyguard, was developed.
The original THEL laser and radar system could track up to sixty targets (mortar and artillery shells, rockets) at a time and fire on and destroy these projectiles at a range of up to five kilometers. THEL could destroy about a dozen targets a minute, at a cost of some $3,000 per shot. Each THEL system (radar and laser) could thus cover about ten kilometers of border or front line.
The Skyguard version of THEL has a range of up to eight kilometers, is using improved software and can more easily link to other radar systems to obtain targeting information. Skyguard is designed mainly for knocking down portable anti-aircraft missiles fired near airports, at aircraft that are landing or taking off. Since Skyguard is stationary, power supply is not a big problem. But this baby needs lots of juice, and there have been no buyers yet.
Such laser weapons have been the weapons of the future for decades, and will continue to be for at least another decade.