- The Air Force has shipped three of its latest directed energy weapons overseas.
- The weapons, HELWS, PHASER, and THOR will protect air bases from drone attack.
- The weapons are the result of three years of testing in the U.S. and will serve overseas for at least one year.
The U.S. Air Force has sent three different directed energy weapon systems to protect air bases abroad. The HELWS, PHASER, and THOR weapons will guard U.S. air bases from the threat of drone strikes, shooting down any unauthorized drone that comes within microwave or laser range. The new weapons are a response to the new threat of weaponized drones and drone swarms attacking airfields.
The three weapons are the High Energy Laser (HELWS), PHASER high power microwave (PHASER), and the Tactical High Power Operational Responder (THOR).
HELWS, developed by defense contractor Raytheon, is a laser weapon system mounted on a Polaris MRZR all-terrain vehicle. The laser is coupled with an advanced electro-optical/infrared sensor designed to detect, identify, and track drones.
Once the command is given, HELWS fires a laser at the target, destroying it. Raytheon touts the system as being able to operate from a standard 220 volt outlet, firing dozens of shots before recharging. The Multi-Spectral Targeting System is the same surveillance and tracking system installed on MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper drones.
The next weapon is PHASER, a microwave energy weapon. Also developed by Raytheon, PHASER is a microwave radar transmitter mounted on top of a shipping container. As Popular Mechanics described the weapon last year: “PHASER is high-powered microwaves cannon that emits radio frequencies in a conical beam. It doesn’t cook a drone with heat. Instead, the weapon disrupts or destroys their circuits with a burst of overwhelming energy.”
PHASER needs just one microsecond to overwhelm a drone’s electronics, sending it plunging to the ground. The conical nature of the beam means that a single pulse can catch several drones in midair at once, making PHASER particularly useful against drone swarms.
The third weapon is the Tactical High Power Operational Responder, or THOR. THOR was developed by the Air Force Research Lab as a “counter-swarm electromagnetic weapon”. THOR also ships in a shipping container, takes three hours to set up, and according to AFRL requires very little operator training. THOR also uses high powered microwaves and cost just $19 million to develop.
Attacks by weaponized drones, especially those traveling in swarms are a serious concern to air forces around the world. The prospect of an inexpensive $300 drone wrecking a $80 million fighter jet is a real one: in January 2018 Syrian rebels launched a swarm of cheap drones against Russia’s main airbase in Syria. All of the drones were shot down or electronically captured and landed.
Had the swarm remained undetected, the damage could have been catastrophic. The U.S. Air Force has not suffered a drone attack yet, but an attack is inevitable and the service wants to be ready when the time comes.
The three weapon systems will serve abroad after one year, returning to the U.S. in 2021.
Source: Edwards Air Force Base.
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