Ukraine war: Russia allegedly uses laser weapons against drones

Russian high-energy lasers are also said to blind satellites. US land forces mount smaller systems on tanks, German Rheinmetall still working on it.

Russian forces say they are using laser weapons in the war against Ukraine to take out defenders‘ drones. This was stated by Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov at a conference in Moscow on Wednesday last week. Presumably, the weapons are so-called High Energy Laser (HEL) weapon systems.

Borissov did not explain the size of the drone attacked. However, it was destroyed „within five seconds“. There is no evidence for this claim even on relevant websites of military analysts.

Borissov oversees the Russian defence sector. It is the first time that the senior civilian official has confirmed the use of a new weapon in Ukraine, writes the military portal Defense News. The system is now being mass-produced, it adds.

Mockery from Selenskyy

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Selenskyy compared the announcement to the „wonder weapons“ that Nazi Germany unsuccessfully used to prevent imminent defeat in World War II. „The clearer it became that they had no chance in the war, the more propaganda there was about an amazing weapon that would be so powerful as to ensure a turning point.“

According to reports, the laser weapon is mounted on an armoured truck and is referred to as the Zadira-16. Western observers first noted the system at a defence fair in Russia in 2017. It was developed by the Russian Federal Nuclear Centre in Sarov in the Nizhny Novgorod region. The centre is part of the state atomic energy company Rosatom and is believed to have produced the Soviet Union’s first atomic bomb.
Larger system against satellites

With the Peresvet, Russia also is supposed to have a laser system with a much greater range, although it is not designed for destruction. According to Borissov, it would blind enemy satellites at an altitude of up to 1,500 kilometres. Peresvet has already been used on a large scale, says Borissov.

It is unclear, however, at whom the laser weapon was actually aimed. Among other things, the United States uses military satellites to detect the launch of intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Vladimir Putin had mentioned Peresvet in his 2018 State of the Union address. In this speech, the Russian president also confirmed the existence of hypersonic weapons, which have now been used for the first time in the Ukraine war.

High-energy lasers on US tanks

Other governments have also been working on high-energy laser weapons for years. On Monday last week, US defence contractor Raytheon reported successful tests of a 50-kW-class high-energy laser mounted on a wheeled tank.

The US device is part of the US Land Forces‘ Directed Energy Maneuver-Short Range Air Defense (DE M-SHORAD) and includes a radar detection system and a target sensor. In another configuration, the platform is also equipped with guided missiles.

The laser is said to have destroyed several mortar shells in the test. Several small, medium and even large drones were also shot down.

Raytheon is part of the largest private US military contractor KBR, whose president describes the HEL system as having a virtually infinite magazine and near-zero cost per shot. This makes it the „proven answer“ to asymmetric threats such as drones and mortars.

The consortium of the tank manufacturer and Raytheon plans to deliver four units of the weapon to the army this year.

The integration is also possible on other platforms on land, in the air and at sea. In the civilian sector, it could be used to secure airports and stadiums, for example.

Drone defence from Unterlüß

Rheinmetall has also been researching and developing laser weapons for years and already showed three different systems with a power of up to 50kw at a demonstration in 2013. Last week, the German defence company issued a press release reporting the testing of a mobile HEL system of more than 10kw for drone defence.

Rheinmetall plans to have the system fully developed by the end of 2022. It is then to be mounted on the Boxer wheeled tank of the Bundeswehr. It is also possible to integrate it into vehicles from other manufacturers.

Rheinmetall claims to have „optically tracked and neutralised different types of drones“ during the test at the Unterlüß site in Lower Saxony. The „combat distances“ were up to one kilometre. The results achieved were „more than satisfactory“ – i.e. not optimal.

With the Skyranger 30 HEL, Rheinmetall plans to provide the high-energy laser with guided weapons and a 30mm gun, similar to its US competitor Raytheon. The laser weapon station is to be scaffolded in a tank turret. However, this hybrid solution is still under development.

In an initial realisation phase, „laser outputs of 20-50 kW are envisaged“. Rheinmetall says it is working on scaling this up to 100kW.

An initial demonstration as part of a „drone defence event“ in Switzerland was met with „great interest among the experts present“.

Image: The Russian Peresvet system directed against satellites (MoD Russia).

Autor: Matthias Monroy

Knowledge worker, activist, editor of the German civil rights journal Bürgerrechte & Polizei/CILIP.