Ukraine is to become a giant testing ground for a revolutionary new laser weapon which, if successful, promises to radically alter the economics of warfare, the British government says.

The “sovereign” British Dragonfire laser was successfully tested at an Army range in Scotland earlier this year. Now, defence procurement rules are being changed to rush it to deployment five years early, and perhaps to the front line in Ukraine even sooner. British Defence Minister Grant Shapps said the rollout of the anti-air laser to the Royal Navy warships was being brought forward five whole years, from 2032 to 2027, but made clear it could be seeing action earlier yet.

Speaking during a visit to the national Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL), Shapps said: “Let’s say that it didn’t have to be 100 per cent perfect in order for Ukrainians perhaps to get their hands on it”. Even for British deployment on warships, he said it would be better to get to “70 per cent” complete and then field-test it to learn from real-world experience, rather than wait a decade for it to reach “99.9 per cent” completion.

Shapps said in a statement: “[Dragonfire is] the UK’s first laser weapon. Able to shoot down drones and missiles with incredible accuracy, it could revolutionise how we fight wars. And this isn’t an idea decades away, we’re building it right now to fit onto our warships in just three years time.”

The weapon’s revolutionary aspect — beyond obviously being a laser weapon — is how cheap it promises to be. Shooting down missiles and drones over Ukraine today is an extremely expensive business, with Patriot Missiles batteries coming in at a billion dollars apiece and each attempted shootdown launching a $4 million missile into the sky. By contrast, using the Dragonfire laser is claimed to cost just around £10 ($12) in electricity per shot.

This, if it works, would radically rebalance the economics of warfare as seen in Ukraine, where Russia — for instance — is able to blanket Ukraine with cheap, mass-produced explosive drones costing just a few tens of thousands of dollars each, but which would have to be shot down with missiles costing hundreds of thousands or millions. This attritional form of warfare becomes less appealing if Ukraine is able to shoot down drones with a $12 energy burst.

While limited to line-of-sight, the UK government claims the Dragonfire will be good for an accuracy level of hitting a “coin from a kilometre away” with an “intense beam of light”. That beam, it is claimed, can “cut through the target, leading to structural failure or more impactful results if the warhead is targeted”. Demonstrations displayed by DSTL include a melted commercial drone and a hole burnt into a mortar shell.

In all, the weapon system has the “potential to be a long-term low-cost alternative to certain tasks missiles currently carry out, such as shooting down attack drones”, it is claimed.

Dragonfire is not the only new British system that could be rushed out to Ukraine early for real-world testing. The Times notes similar treatment is being given to ‘Project Ealing’, another directed-energy weapon funded at the same time as Dragonfire in 2021. The “radio frequency weapon” has been compared to a science-fiction device from the film Ocean’s Eleven, that knocks out electric power and digital devices and is intended to use a focused beam of energy to take out drones.

Similar systems are already in use in Ukraine by both Russian and Ukrainian troops, and the degree to which Project Ealing is a step-change in this technology is unclear. DSTL energy weapon expert Matt Cork told The Times: “Just turning things off when we choose to turn things off leads to a potential where actually they [the enemy] stop trusting their own equipment. It creates that element of doubt in their ability to use their equipment when they need to use it.”

The change in speed for British defence procurement to bring experimental weapons to the battlefield faster reflects the pace of development in the Ukraine war itself, clearly seen as the most relevant conflict to future planning by Western military officers and politicians. While the rapid development of drone warfare has been most widely discussed, also seeing constant advancement are low-cost guided munitions, taking advantage of large stocks of Cold War-era ‘dumb’ bombs held by both sides by mating them to satellite navigation kits and rudimentary wings.

Ukraine has the JDAM-ER — an idea already 30 years old — while Russia is learning on the fly with its own version, the UMPK. As reported this week, the Russian version is plentiful and powerful, given it can be mounted on legacy freefall bombs up to 1,500 kg (33,000 lbs), turning them into a rudimentary guided weapon, and it is already being felt on the battlefield. The Guardian states some 500 of them are being dropped a week and “played a key role in the destruction of [the eastern city of] Avdiivka and the seizure of its ruins by Russia”.

The paper cited a Ukrainian source who said of the glide bombs, which allow Russian bombers to ‘drop’ up to 37 miles away from their targets: “Russia uses UMPC bombs primarily to hit its targets in frontline areas, minimising the possibility of its own aircraft being hit by Ukrainian air defences.” They are successful precisely because they are so numerous, being able to overwhelm Ukrainian air defence in any given sector, and being comparatively difficult to shoot down compared to missiles.

Ukraine is developing its own way to defeat the UMPKs, however, using drone attacks to strike Russian military airfields, sometimes comparatively deep inside Russia, to make sure the kit-converted heavy bombs never get off the ground, given that by the time they are being carried into battle on the wings of a Russian bomber, it is already too late.