Air Force Testing Out Weapons That Fry Enemy Drones with Directed Energy, Microwaves

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Tactical High Power Operational Responder, or THOR.
Leaders from the Army Rapid Capabilities and Critical Technologies Office enter the control center of the Tactical High Power Operational Responder, or THOR, to view the system’s drone-killing capabilities, Feb. 11, 2021 at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M. (U.S. Air Force/John Cochran)

The U.S. Air Force is testing new counter-drone systems that use either direct energy or microwaves to take out unmanned drones that pose a threat to troops and bases overseas.

The service announced this month that it has been testing an upgraded laser system, known as the High Energy Laser Weapon System 2, or H2, through a series of experiments that began last summer at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico.

H2, made by Raytheon Technologies, is a modified version of the company's High Energy Laser (HEL) weapon, and is capable of defeating dozens of unmanned aerial system targets with increased precision over its predecessor, a news release states.

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The HEL system was first tested in 2019 and deployed in early 2020, according to Raytheon officials.

"[The H2] experiment has many notable U.S. Air Force firsts, including the complete training of and operation of the system by Security Forces airmen, the first directed energy [counter-Unmanned Aerial System or c-UAS] capability, and the first integration with a base," said Lt. Col. Jared Rupp, director of the Directed Energy Combined Test Force, or DE-CTF, in the release.

"The first phase proved that H2 was capable of integrating with a fielded radar and fielded command and control system, and it completed the kill chain by shooting down UASs at operationally-relevant ranges," Rupp said.

H2 was then "successfully deployed and integrated overseas," he said, without disclosing the location.

Four systems were tested in 2020, three of which were deployed, according to the release.

The service will next test "three versions of the [HEL] and two different high-power microwave systems" in coming weeks, it added.

The news follows the U.S. Army's announcement Wednesday that it will partner with the Air Force on its Tactical High Power Operational Responder, or THOR, which can disable a drone's electronics at certain ranges. During its development phase, THOR was referred to as the Tactical High-power Microwave Operational Responder.

While high-energy lasers can kill one target at a time, high-powered microwaves "can kill groups or swarms, which is why we are pursuing a combination of both technologies for our Indirect Fire Protection Capability rapid prototyping effort," said Army Lt. Gen. L. Neil Thurgood, director of hypersonics, directed energy space and rapid acquisition for the Army, in a separate release.

"The system output is powerful radio wave bursts, which offer a greater engagement range than bullets or nets, and its effects are silent and instantaneous," added Amber Anderson, THOR program manager.

THOR, developed by the Air Force Research Lab and housed at Kirtland, looks like a standard Conex box with a satellite dish strapped to it.

The Pentagon has been on a yearslong quest to give base defenders and Security Forces troops better tools to deter easily obtained unmanned systems, which may aim to disrupt base operations or spy on aircraft.

As an interim solution, the Army -- which was tasked with overseeing the Joint Counter-Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Office -- last year authorized seven defensive countermeasures out of 40 proposed systems "to primarily detect, access, and engage with enemy drones," according to the service.

The systems fall into three categories: fixed and semi-fixed systems, mobile mounted systems, and handheld dismounted systems, which range from highly sophisticated technologies to basic zappers or radio jammers, the Army said at the time.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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