The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has awarded a £30m contract to a consortium of European companies to build a prototype "laser weapon".
The contract for the laser directed energy weapon will assess how the system can pick up and track targets "at various ranges and in varied weather conditions over land and water".
If the programme is successful, the first laser weapons will come into service in the mid-2020s.
Peter Cooper, of the MoD's Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, said the programme will mature the military's knowledge of an "immature technology".
"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 faced by UK armed forces," Cooper added.
Read more: Babcock wins £100m MoD contract
"The UK has long enjoyed a reputation as a world leader in innovation and it is truly ground-breaking projects like the laser directed energy weapon which will keep this country ahead of the curve," said minister for defence procurement Harriet Baldwin.
"The Defence Innovation Initiative and £800m Defence Innovation Fund aim to encourage imagination, ingenuity and entrepreneurship, in pursuit of maintaining a military advantage in the future."