On April 6th, the US Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) said that it had delivered the Air Force’s first high-energy laser for use against drones on a battlefield, alongside other systems.
AFRL has set up the laser weapon system overseas for a 12-month field assessment.
The Air Force Strategic Development Planning & Experimentation (SDPE) Office located at Wright-Patt is leading the project, AFRL said in a statement.
According to Michael Jirjis, the SDPE Base defense experimentation director, the next 12 months will allow AFRL to “shape how the Air Force wants to move forward with both high energy lasers and high power microwaves against small drones.”
“The intent of these systems are to be operationally used by the combatant commanders for the duration of the 12 months,” he said.
Field assessments began in January 2018 when the Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force, Gen. Stephen Wilson, asked the Air Force to experiment with directed energy systems as an effort to “transition game-changing capability to the warfighter,” AFRL said.
“THOR is a directed energy game-changer,” said Dr. Kelly Hammett, AFRL’s directed energy director. “Drones are becoming more and more pervasive and can be used as weapons intended to cause harm to our military bases at long standoff ranges. We built the THOR weapon system as a deterrent against these type threats. THOR with its counter electronic technology can take down swarms of drones in rapid fire. This capability will be an amazing asset to our warfighters and the nation’s defense.”
The Air Force will be evaluating five systems including the Raytheon High Energy Laser (HELWS), Raytheon High Power Microwave (PHASER), and the AFRL Tactical High Power Operational Responder (THOR) drone killer. Which two other systems will be tested remains unclear.
It is possible that the Self-Protect High Energy Laser Demonstrator (SHiELD) Advanced Technology Demonstration (ATD) Program would also field a prototype, as it successfully carried out a test that shot down multiple air launched missiles in flight back in April 2019.
The system, however, wasn’t mounted on an aircraft, but rather on the ground when it was tested.
The THOR was unveiled back in March, and it provided a live demonstration to reporters.
The $15 million system disabled the unmanned aerial vehicle in a flash, sending it spiraling to the ground the moment the electromagnetic ray hit it.
Had more drones been flying within THOR’s expansive scope, they also would have dropped in an instant, THOR program manager Amber Anderson said.
“It operates like a flashlight,” Anderson said after the demonstration. “It spreads out when the operator hits the button, and anything within that cone will be taken down. It engages in the blink of an eye.”
“It’s built to negate swarms of drones,” Anderson said. “We want to drop many of them at one time without a single leaker getting through.”
The AFRL built the machine on an expedited, 18-month timeline to get it into war fighters’ hands as fast as possible, given the increasing military threat from drones, said Kelly Hammett, head of AFRL’s Directed Energy Directorate in Albuquerque.
“If the Air Force or Army decide to procure it, that would be big for Albuquerque,” Hammett said. “It would establish a manufacturing and production base right here, representing hundreds of millions of dollars, if not more.”
The program costs $15 million, and each unit supposedly would cost around $10 million.
It’s designed for rapid deployment wherever needed, with the microwave antennae and foundation stored in a shipping container transported on a flatbed truck. The equipment is stored in parts for easy, snap-together assembly in just three hours.
“It takes two people to set it up and three to tear it down.” Anderson said. “You can take it to the field, rapidly set it up and it’s ready to fire. It’s designed as a turnkey system.”
A handheld remote control rotates the antennas in all directions as needed, providing 360-degree defense against drones. The firing mechanism and overall system control are operated from a laptop.
The THOR’s operation could briefly be seen in the following video:
In rather aged videos, Raytheon’s systems can also be seen:
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