U.S. Air Force Fields its First High-Energy Laser Weapon System Overseas for 12-Month Assessment

The U.S Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) has set up the Air Force’s first high-energy laser weapon system (HELWS) overseas for a 12-month field assessment, AFRL said in a statement.

The Air Force Strategic Development Planning & Experimentation (SDPE) Office located at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio is leading the field assessment project.

“The receiving combatant command will utilize this system as an operational asset against small unmanned aircraft systems for the duration of the field assessment,” said Dr. Michael Jirjis, the SDPE Base Defense Experimentation director.

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 weapon (DEW) systems as an effort to transition game-changing capability to the warfighter.

During the 12-month field assessment, the Air Force will be evaluating four other DEW systems including the Raytheon PHASER High Power Microwave (HPM) system, and the AFRL Tactical High Power Operational Responder (THOR) drone killer.

The contract for the outside continental U.S. (OCONUS) field assessment of the HELWS and PHASER HPM system was awarded to Raytheon last year. The THOR system was developed in house by AFRL.

“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.”

Leading up to the current field assessment, the Air Force SDPE Office successfully led operational experimentation events of laser and high power microwave testing events in the fall of 2018 at White Sands Missile Range (WSMR) in New Mexico and in the fall of 2019 at the Maneuver Fires Integrated Experiment (MFIX) event held at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma.

“The overseas field assessments are allowing us to understand directed energy as a capability against drones. This gives us a better picture of the military utility, reliability and sustainability, training requirements and implementation with existing base defense,” Jirjis said.

According to Jirjis, the next 12 months will allow the AFRL to shape how the Air Force wants to move forward with both high-energy laser and high power microwave weapon systems 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.

Raytheon High Energy Laser Weapon Systems (HELWS)

Raytheon’s HELWS system uses invisible beams of light to neutralize hostile unmanned aerial systems (UASs) in a matter of seconds.

Mounted on a Polaris MRZR all-terrain vehicle, the system paired with an advanced variant of the company’s Multi-spectral Targeting System (MTS) electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) sensor detects, identifies, tracks and engages drones.

Raytheon delivered the first system to the Air Force in October last year.

Raytheon HELWS-MRZR – a Raytheon High-Energy Laser Weapon System (HELWS) mounted on a Polaris MRZR all-terrain vehicle.

Raytheon PHASER High Power Microwave (HPM)

Raytheon’s HPM uses microwave energy to disrupt drone guidance systems. High power microwave operators can focus the beam to target and instantly defeat drone swarms.

With a consistent power supply, the HPM system can provide virtually unlimited protection.

Raytheon PHASER High Power Microwave (HPM) System
Raytheon PHASER high-powered microwave (HPM) system mounted on a shipping container-like box. (Monica K. Guthrie, PAO, U.S. Army)

AFRL Tactical High Power Operational Responder (THOR)

The Tactical High-power Operational Responder (THOR) is a counter-swarm high power electromagnetic weapon system for airbase defense developed by U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL). The development was led by AFRL’s Directed Energy Directorate at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico.

THOR stores completely in a 20-foot transport container, which can easily be transported in a C-130 aircraft. The system can be set up within three hours and has a user interface designed to require very little user training. The technology, which cost roughly $15 million to develop, uses high power electromagnetics to counter electronic effect. When a target is identified, the silent weapon discharges with nearly instantaneous impact.

Tactical High-power Operational Responder (THOR)
The U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL)’s Tactical High Power Operational Responder (THOR) counter-swarm high power electromagnetic weapon system developed for airbase defense. (Courtesy photo/AFRL Directed Energy Directorate)

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