China aiming to procure airborne laser-based weapon

The PLA has announced a tender for a ‘laser strike pod’. China has conducted extensive research into directed-energy weapons. China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has issued an invitation to tender for the procurement of a laser-based weapon pod, as reflected in an entry on the Chinese military and weapon procurement website.

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The website, which lists a “tender announcement for a laser strike pod procurement project”, indicates that further information about the planned acquisition is confidential. However, the announcement was picked up by the state-owned Global Times newspaper, which focused on the likelihood that the project is aimed at delivering an airborne laser-based weapon, with the terminology “laser strike pod” suggesting that this is the capability expected to be delivered.

China has an extensive research programme related to directed-energy weapons and has developed both tactical and strategic weapon systems. The tactical systems include short-range defensive weapon systems, such as the China Aerospace Science &Industry Corporation’s (CASIC’s) truck-mounted LW-30, which is claimed to be capable of engaging unmanned aerial vehicles, guided munitions, and mortar bombs.

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China has been developing strategic laser-based weapon systems for at least 15 years, with the goal of developing the capability to disrupt, degrade or damage satellites. In its January 2019 report ‘Challenges to Security in Space’, the US Defense Intelligence Agency stated that China “possibly already has a limited capability to employ laser systems against satellite sensors”, adding that “China likely will field a ground-based laser weapon that can counter low-orbit space-based sensors by 2020”.

Chinese research papers show that work has also been undertaken to develop airborne tactical laser-based weapons, although no evidence of a prototype system or equipment trials has been evident. However, the invitation to tender for the procurement of a laser-based pod suggests that the research and development phase of the project has concluded satisfactorily and that the next step is tomove to the production phase of a proven design.

On the other hand in USA, A-Dynetics and Lockheed Martin team have beaten out Raytheon in a head-to-head competition to build a 100-kilowatt laser weapon for the U.S. Army. The US Army awarded a $130 million contract to the Dynetics-Lockheed team to build the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command’s High Energy Laser Tactical Vehicle Demonstrator (HEL TVD) laser system.

Under the program, Dynetics — the prime contractor — will integrate the laser system onto the Family of Medium-Tactical Vehicles, with the effort culminating in a test of the entire system in 2022 at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico. The Army began its effort to get a more powerful laser onto a vehicle less bulky than a Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Truck in 2016.

Additional reporting by Andrew Tate, London

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