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Laser gunship hits moving ground target

The damage is modest, but a trial run by Boeing's Advanced Tactical Laser still marks a small victory for directed-energy weapons.

Boeing Advanced Tactical Laser
The Advanced Tactical Laser in an undated flight over Albuquerque, N.M.
Ed Turner, Boeing

Boeing continues to carve notches in its directed-energy bandolier.

The defense contractor said Tuesday that its Advanced Tactical Laser aircraft in mid-September fired from the air and hit a vehicle moving on the ground. That bull's-eye marks the first time the modified C-130H has used its onboard chemical laser to strike a moving target. Boeing didn't offer specifics on the type of vehicle, other than to say it was remote-controlled, or how fast it was moving, nor did it give the airspeed or altitude for the aircraft.

The actual damage was minimal: the laser beam put a hole in the fender of the vehicle. But it does go another small step toward demonstrating the potential of directed-energy weapons. A few weeks earlier, the ATL had made a laser strike on a stationary ground target that Boeing describes as "tactically representative." On that occasion, Boeing said in a September 1 press release, "the laser beam's energy defeated the vehicle"--"defeated" in this case meaning that the vehicle was made temporarily or permanently unavailable for its intended use.

So don't expect Hollywood pyrotechnics. Check out the several videos from the summer in which Boeing shows the ATL carving a gash, blowtorch-style, in the hood of what looks like a pickup truck. (Boeing says those videos are separate from the ATL defeating a ground vehicle.)

The September test took place at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, with the aircraft flying out of Kirtland Air Force Base, located near Albuquerque. Boeing is working the kinks out of the ATL for the U.S. Air Force, as it is with the bigger Airborne Laser, a modified 747 that's intended to target ballistic missiles. Where the Airborne Laser fires its high-energy chemical laser through the aircraft's nose, the ATL shoots from a ball turret in the belly of its fuselage.

In a case of what goes down must also go up, Boeing is also working on a Humvee-mounted laser weapon that has shown it can shoot down an unmanned aerial vehicle.