Laser weapons have been tested on ships, planes, and even armored vehicles, but Raytheon has pushed the envelope further again by successfully testing a high-energy laser mounted on an Apache AH-64 attack helicopter. According to the company, the laser pod flew last April at the White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico under the aegis of the US Army Apache Program Management Office and the US Special Operations Command, where it was able to lock onto and hit an unmanned target.
There are some very sound arguments for installing a laser weapon on a rotary-wing aircraft. Modern attack helicopters like the Apache are among the most effective field infantry weapons available. They are fast, agile, and their ability to pop up and fire gives them the ability to destroy a target before the opposition is even aware of their presence.
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However, such capabilities are hampered by the munitions available. It's all very well to be able to target a single terrorist vehicle in a crowded area, but it isn't much help when the only option is to take it out with a Hellfire missile. A laser, on the other hand, would allow a helicopter to strike with a high level of precision combined with exactly applied destructive power unheard of today.
With its ability to hover and move easily in three dimensions, a helicopter is a platform that would allow a laser to take out a particular piece of equipment or person at will, kill enemy combatants without harming human shields, and introduce a massive level of uncertainty into hostiles out in the open.
The problem is that, in order to be effective, the laser would need to be able to locate, identify, lock onto, track, and destroy potential targets while the helicopter is maneuvering. By mounting a laser pod on an Apache and linking it to a variant of Raytheon's Multi-Spectral Targeting System, the Apache could use the system's advanced, electro-optical, infrared sensors to provide targeting information, situational awareness, and beam control to hit targets up to 1.4 km (0.9 mi) away as measured in direct line of sight from laser to target.
According to Raytheon, this is the first time a fully integrated laser system has successfully shot a target from a rotary-wing aircraft. The April tests were conducted under a number of flight regimes, altitudes, and airspeeds as way of proving the feasibility of using the Apache for laser attacks.
No information was released as to whether that target was damaged or destroyed in the test, and technical details of the laser pod haven't been released either. The data from the tests that include vibration, dust, and rotor downwash will be used to produce future high-energy laser systems for rotary-wing aircraft.
"Our goal is to pull the future forward," says Art Morrish, vice president of Advanced Concepts and Technologies for Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems. "This data collection shows we're on the right track."
The video below shows the helicopter-mounted laser in action.