After more than ten years and several billion dollars of development, one of the most promising experimental weapons in the history of the Pentagon seemed to have fired its last shot. “The Army has no funding for MTHEL,” says Lt.Col. Jeff Souder, the project manager of directed energy applications program at the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama.
The Mobile Tactical High Energy Laser (MTHEL) was a program to develop a defensive laser weapon powered by the combustion of highly volatile chemicals that shoots down artillery projectiles.
They system works by using a radar to track the incoming object, which signaled a controller to fire the weapon when the incoming shell was at its apogee, thus rendering it harmless to the troops below. Despite some 50 successful tests, the Army started to lose interest in the MTHEL after Sept. 11, switching its tact instead towards next-generation lasers that promise more mobility (and lower cost) than the bulky chemical laser of MTHEL.
Strangely, though, the death of MTHEL might be the best thing that ever happened to the program. Northrop Grumman, MTHEL’s lead contractor, and the Pentagon are in discussions that may see the laser prototype – which currently sits unused at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico – deployed in Iraq’s Green Zone later this summer.
That would be an amazing turnaround for a device whose development timeline moved at considerably less than the speed of light. Originally called the Nautilus, it was conceived in 1994 as a chemical laser test bed to determine if shooting down artillery rockets was feasible. It certainly did that well – the prototype laser has shot down at least 47 targets, some in salvos, including rockets, mortars, shells and even a helicopter.
President Clinton pushed up the development cycle in 1997, transforming the Nautilus program into a fast-tracked technology when he promised a string of the devices (since re-named THEL, and later MTHEL) to Israel to protect its Northern border from the rain of Katyusha rockets fired from the Lebanese militia group Hezbollah. He also invited Israel’s Ministry of Defense to be partner in development of the program.
Israeli interest in the weapon dimmed after 2000, when its Northern front turned peaceful after the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon.
“The brass had a negative view of the MTHEL program from the beginning,” says Yiftah Shapir, an associate at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies of Tel Aviv University. “They didn’t want to spend $3000 on chemicals for every shot at a mortar shell which isn’t capable of doing that much damage even if it landed right on a house.”