The Army and Air Force are collaborating on prototype directed energy weapons designed to jam, dismantle, take-out or simply stop attacking drones, bringing emerging technologies to the increasingly high-risk base defense mission.
The weapon, which uses high-powered microwave technology to disable the “electronics” in drones and counter “multiple targets” at once, is believed to be capable of stopping the much discussed and very serious threat posed by drone swarms.
The prototype Tactical High Power Operational Responder (THOR), a new weapon developed by the Air Force Research Lab (AFRL), is a large microwave dish housed in a 20ft-long shipping container transportable on a cargo plane, an Air Force report explains.
The Army’s Rapid Capabilities and Critical Technologies Office is now working to build upon progress made by the AFRL to develop the weapon as a directed energy solution able to complement the direct-target technology afforded by precision laser weapons.
“High energy lasers kill one target at a time, and 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. Our partnership with the Air Force Research Laboratory gave the Army a running start on the high power microwave mission,” Army Lt. Gen. Neil Thurgood, Director, Hypersonics, Directed Energy Space and Rapid Acquisition, said in the Air Force report.
Electronic jamming may indeed offer the optimal solution for destroying or stopping drone swarms, as there can simply be too many small unmanned systems for any kind of kinetic or explosive counterattack to work. Even in the event that a proximity fuse is able to detonate in an “area” and take out a number of them, a drone swarm may simply be too large and therefore be able to continue on to its target. Electronic jamming, however, has fewer area limits and could simultaneously derail the electronic guidance systems and sensors of many drones at one time across a broad area. A weapon like THOR could complement laser weapons or kinetic area defense technologies such as a Phalanx which is now used for base defense.
The concern with mini-drones is twofold. First, they can blanket an area with surveillance or “paint” and identify targets for kinetic weapons such as missiles, guns and bombs. Second, and worse still, drone swarms themselves could be used as explosives to descend upon and explode on impact.
Also, it certainly seems possible that THOR could be effective against incoming missiles, rockets or even bombs guided by electronics, as the precision-guidance or seeker systems directing them to a target could be jammed or disabled, throwing them off course.
All of this can best be brought to fruition through artificial intelligence-enabled sensor-to-shooter pairing engineered to gather, aggregate, organize and analyze incoming sensor data to identify particular threats and determine the optimal effector or countermeasure suited for that particular solution. AI programs are getting so advanced that computer algorithms can instantly bounce new information against an existing library or vast database to instantly identify threats, analyze prior instances where particular defenses have been effective, and instantly match or “pair” sensors with shooters. Perhaps certain threats, such as a single approaching drone, might best be destroyed by a precise laser able to incinerate or destroy it, yet other scenarios such as drone swarms might need a high-powered microwave solution.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.