A laser weapon capable of shooting down enemy drones is being developed for the US military, defence department officials have announced.
In a press release entitled "Bad News for the Bad Guys", the Office of Naval Research (ONR) said it had awarded contracts for the design of a light-weight surface-to-air laser missile which would protect troops from drone attack.
The Ground-Based Air Defence Directed Energy On-the-Move programme, known as GBAD, would be mounted on marines' Humvees and light tactical ground vehicles. Similar to the US navy's ship-mounted laser weapon which is due to deploy later this summer, the GBAD "aims to provide an affordable alternative to traditional firepower to keep enemy unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) from tracking and targeting marines on the ground".
The US is said to be considering drone strikes in Iraq but has been criticised for using them to target al-Qaeda terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan, facing censure from the United Nations over the practice in March.
While the tactic has allowed President Barack Obama to scale down the use of conventional troops, critics say unmanned drones are a blunt instruments that incur too many civilian casualties.
Military chiefs now fear that drones could be turned against America. Col William Zamagni, of ONR, said that as drone technology improved, the navy expected US troops to come under threat from enemy reconnaissance and surveillance as well as physical attack.
Columns of West Point cadets march to lunch at the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York. Photo / AP
"We can expect that our adversaries will increasingly use UAVs and our expeditionary forces must deal with that rising threat," he said, adding that GBAD would provide that capability.
Testing of parts of the laser has already taken place. Researchers will go on to test the entire system next year against targets using a 10kw laser before a 30kw laser is ultimately introduced in 2016.
Lee Mastroianni, a programme manager for ONR, said: "Everything about this programme is geared toward realising a viable directed-energy capability in support of that objective to allow our marines to be fast and lethal."