Following in the US military's footsteps, Britain's Ministry of Defence (MoD) has awarded a £30 million (US$37 million) contract to the UK Dragonfire consortium to build a Laser Directed Energy Weapon (LDEW) Capability Demonstrator. The prototype laser, which is scheduled for completion in 2019, will be used to assess the practicality and effectiveness of laser weapon technologies in the field.

Consisting of partners including MDBA, QinetiQ, Leonardo-Finmeccanica GKN, Arke, BAE Systems, and Marshall ADG, the UK Dragonfire consortium is tasked with building a laser weapon system and determining how it can operate in field conditions. A special emphasis will be on acquiring and tracking targets at various ranges in various weather conditions over land and water.

Though only a demonstrator, the LEDW will be used by the government to make decisions about future weapons programs and by the MoD's Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) to work out how to build a practical laser weapon system for deployment.

In an interview with the BBC, the MoD said the demonstrator laser was not intended to counter any specific threat, but the department said previously that the system could one day be used to protect ships from missiles or ground troops from mortars.

"This is a significant demonstration program aimed at maturing our understanding of what is still an immature technology," says Dstl's Peter Cooper. "It draws on innovative research into high power lasers so as to understand the potential of the technology to provide a more effective response to the emerging threats that could be faced by UK armed forces."

The MoD says that if the project is successful, the first British laser weapons could be deployed by the middle of the next decade.