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Army laser weapon KOs mortar rounds

Call it HEL MD on wheels. The Army's truck-mounted High Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator shows flying targets that it means business.

Boeing HEL MD
HEL MD on wheels: It takes a big truck to pack a laser weapon.

It's another small step on the long march toward laser weapons.

The US Army said this week that its big, boxy HEL MD system turned in a bang-up performance in its recent shoot-'em-up on the test range. During a three-week run between November 18 and December 10 at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, the truck-mounted High Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator (PDF) successfully engaged more than 90 mortar rounds, along with "several" unmanned aerial vehicles in flight.

No specifics were given on what exactly constitutes a successful engagement, but judging by various earlier tests of laser weapons prototypes, HEL MD's beam likely scorched a hole in the side of its targets and disrupted their trajectories, perhaps even causing them to explode in the air.

Last spring, for instance, Lockheed Martin's ADAM laser weapon prototype put a hurt on a handful of small rockets. The US Navy, meanwhile, has conducted tests of laser weapons at sea, setting target boats aflame, and next year plans to deploy a ship-mounted laser weapon to the Persian Gulf aboard the USS Ponce.

The burning heart of the Boeing-built HEL MD system is a solid-state laser, which in this iteration was of the 10-kilowatt class. The Army plans to upgrade that first to a laser in the 50KW class and then eventually to the 100KW class, which is the level generally considered the sweet spot for battle-ready laser weapons.

HEL MD's ride is the 8-wheeled, 500-horsepower Oshkosh HEMTT (Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Truck).

This test run marked the first time that both the laser and its beam director were mounted in the vehicle, with support from a surrogate radar, according to the Army.

The incoming mortar rounds that HEL MD engaged are what the Army refers to as "representative threats," the types of ordnance that troops on the battlefield should expect to be directed their way. Other (and probably speedier) threats in that group include rockets, artillery shells, and even cruise missiles, along with the small drone aircraft more likely to be reconning the troops' positions.

A key test of the system, according to a report in the Christian Science Monitor, will come early in 2014 when the Army brings HEL MD to Florida to see how the laser system performs in fog and rain. Oh, and the overall testing phase is likely to run into the early 2020s.