Microwave Weapons Moving Toward Operational Use

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.

Two high-power microwave programs, the shyer cousin of lasers in the directed-energy limelight, will become more visible as the Air Force tests them over the next few years.

“We are pretty much the acknowledged center of gravity for high-power microwave weapons S&T in the services,” Kelly Hammett, the Air Force Research Laboratory’s directed-energy branch director, said Wednesday. “We were able to get some funding from OSD on behalf of all the services to build some ground-based high-power microwave prototypes. Those are being delivered this year and they will go into our experimentation campaign.”

One, the Tactical High-Power Operational Responder (THOR), is intended to pursue multiple short-range targets and will be delivered next month, Hammett said at an annual directed-energy conference hosted by Booz Allen Hamilton and the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

Air Force Acquisition Executive Will Roper noted earlier this month at the Center for Strategic and International Studies that THOR, which tried to package an HPM in a small space, “just simply wasn’t able to hit targets that mattered for mission.”

“I have no doubt that eventually the program will be back, that they’ll have tackled their technology challenge, and they’ll be ready to take the next step,” Roper said.

Another microwave dubbed the “Counter-Electronic High-Power Microwave Extended-Range Air Base Air Defense” project, or CHIMERA, is a transportable, standalone system that can fire at multiple middle- to long-range targets and wields more power than THOR, according to Hammett. The 24-month program aims to deliver an integrated system in fiscal 2020, when it will head to field testing.

While the Air Force’s 2020 budget request doesn’t break out funding amounts for each program, it does note that the service plans to test HPM components in early ground and airborne microwave systems, “conduct effects testing on electronics based on the target classes for the joint high-power microwave program with the Navy,” and develop and test smaller, higher-power technology for a joint HPM demo with the maritime service.

Even as experimentation ramps up under the Air Force’s 2017 directed-energy weapons flight plan, the service wants less money for those efforts in 2020. The 2019 budget allocated $309 million toward DE research and development, but funding dropped to $282 million in the 2020 request released this month.

That breaks down to $262 million for science and technology initiatives and $20 million for prototyping and experiments, service spokeswoman Capt. Cara Bousie told Air Force Magazine March 19.

DE experiments are handled by AFRL’s Strategic Development Planning and Experimentation Office, which held its first event for base-defense systems last fall. The first phase of that project brought in Raytheon-built laser and microwave weapons to down small drones at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, and will expand to consider other technologies at the Army’s Maneuver Fires Integrated Experiment this year.