Directed Energy Weapons Move Closer to Prime Time

High-power microwave weapons, like the Raytheon system shown here, are being vetted to fry electronics for a variety of uses like base defense. Raytheon photo.

The US military has doubled its spending on directed energy weapons over the past two years, and the investment is bearing fruit. Earlier this month, the Air Force successfully tested five prototype systems and is preparing to deploy at least two of them overseas by the end of 2020.

“We’ve seen a doubling of the [DOD] budget for DE from FY17 to FY19,” from $535 million to $1.1 billion, Mark Neice, executive director of the Directed Energy Professional Society, said Oct. 29 at the Association of Old Crows’ annual symposium. The funding is divided between the three military services and a number of program offices across the Defense Department, including the Missile Defense Agency, the DE Joint Transition Office, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Frank Peterkin, a directed energy-focused scientist and engineer within the Office of Naval Research, noted that fiscal 2019 marked the first time the Navy overtook the Air Force in defense appropriations for DE, $259 million to $235 million.

DE technology “has matured significantly in the last five years or so,” added Kelly Hammett, who runs the Directed Energy Directorate at the Air Force Research Laboratory. “Directed energy weapons are emerging in the battlespace for all three services. You’re going to see them in your battlespace, whether you like it or not. They may be aimed at you.”

Hammett said that during the week of Oct. 20 at Fort Sill, Okla., the Air Force conducted tests of five DE systems—four high-energy lasers and one high-power microwave—as counter-drone weapons. The tests were part of an ongoing directed energy effort run by AFRL’s Strategic Development Planning and Experimentation Office.

They were “knocking drones out of the sky. It looked like a very successful exercise,” he said, adding that the organizers are preparing more detailed results for public release.

Laser weapons work by heating an object until it catches fire, melts, or explodes. The microwave weapons work differently, destroying or disabling the target’s electronics with a short burst of extremely high powered microwave radiation. Unlike a laser’s tight beam, the microwaves propagate in a cone shape, meaning it can engage many targets at once. This makes it ideal for defending against swarms of large numbers of drones.

The Air Force has publicly announced plans to buy two laser weapons and one microwave from Raytheon. The first high-energy laser weapon system was delivered this month, the company recently said. It is mounted on a small ATV and works with the company’s Multi-Spectral Targeting System.

The microwave weapon, which the company dubs Phaser, comes in a shipping container-sized box, is C-130 transportable, and can be deployed within a couple of hours.

A Raytheon spokeswoman told Air Force Magazine the company plans to deliver the $16.2 million Phaser later this year, for deployment at the beginning of 2020.

Both Phaser and a laser weapon will be deployed overseas to try downing drones, as Air Force Magazine reported earlier this year.

“We have made it through acceptance testing [in the continental US] for the first laser system,” Michael Jirjis, who oversees DE experimentation within SDPE, said in an Oct. 29 email. “It performed better than we expected, and [we] are currently packing everything up to be shipped out in the next month or two. The first microwave system is to go through acceptance testing next month and will follow suit (packed up and shipped).”

USAF officials declined to say where the systems will go, but last month’s drone attack on a Saudi oil installation—which was claimed by Yemen’s Houthi rebels but blamed on Iran by US and allied officials—highlights the dangers in the Arabian Gulf. Service leaders have pointed to instances of armed, small unmanned aircraft near US assets overseas, or those that they fear could surveil bases or get sucked up into larger aircraft.

But it’s not just the threat from low-cost drones operated by nonstate actors that’s stirred the recent growing interest in DE technology, according to Hammett.

“One of the reasons [for the] significant increase in funding … is that our near-peer adversaries are acting,” he said. “They are moving forward in a whole bunch of technology areas, [including] directed energy, that are alarming.”

It wasn’t that the US was being overtaken on the technology front, he said, but rather that America’s adversaries were more willing to deploy emerging technology before it was mature.

“We still preserve in many areas a research and development advantage [over them],” he concluded. “What we don’t have is the risk-accepting culture that will take a minimum viable product and field it.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct Michael Jirjis’ role within SDPE and to remove an erroneous reference to the Phaser system.