After drones and cruise missiles damaged two petroleum facilities in Saudi Arabia last month, US military officials are anxious to find an effective counter-drone solution.
Which is why the US Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) is investing US$16 million in a further field assessment of Raytheon’s Phaser High Power Microwave System (HPM) outside the continental US, Defense Update reported.
The testing phase will span over 12 months in which the Phaser will engage simulated and real unmanned aerial systems threats (likely the Saudi region).
The effectiveness of Phaser against drones has already been demonstrated at the Army MFIX exercise in 2018, when the system eliminated 33 drones, 2-3 at a time. Currently mounted on a shipping container-like box, Raytheon plans to significantly reduce the size in future versions. The range of the weapon is classified.
AFRL already evaluates two other HPM systems — the Tactical High-Power Operational Responder (THOR), that deploys as a means to provide base defense against drones, and ‘Counter-Electronic High-Power Microwave Extended-Range Air Base Air Defense’ system, or CHIMERA, designed to engage multiple targets over a larger area.
The HPM contract follows a separate Air Force contract in which Raytheon will build two prototype high-energy laser systems, also to be deployed overseas, Defense News reported.
According to Popular Mechanics, Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last month that the US would be moving enhanced air defenses into the Middle East region.
He didn’t offer any specifics, saying the Pentagon is working with the Saudis to come up with a support plan. The Phaser system, by virtue of timing, could now land at the forefront of an international crisis.
The system uses microwaves to disable Class One and Class Two drones, ones that are less than 55 pounds and fly at altitudes of 1,200 to 3,500 feet at speeds between 100 and 200 knots.
There were an estimated 20 drones and cruise missiles used to attack Saudi Arabia, and some of the drones may have been small enough for Phaser to have disabled them. The HPM system is not known to work against cruise missiles, according the Air Force and Raytheon.
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.
“It’s not a thermal effect, it’s an electric field effect that is basically imposed on the electronics to either upset or permanently damage them,” said Don Sullivan, Raytheon missile systems’ chief technologist for directed energy. “And the effect is essentially instantaneous.”
Lasers need to fix on a target to burn them, but HPM pulses are shorter than one microsecond. That’s all it takes to disable a drone. “If you could see the microwaves, it would look very much like a strobe light,” Sullivan says.
“There’s more than one way to defeat a drone,” said Dr. Thomas Bussing, Raytheon Advanced Missile Systems vice president. “We are delivering the world’s first defensive directed energy systems that can be used alone or in tandem to defeat enemy drones at the speed of light.”
Tests have been carried out at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico and Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque in cooperation with equipment suppliers including Raytheon, BAE Systems, Leidos, and Verus Research, Defense News reported.
“It is a remarkable coincidence because this has been in the works between the Air Force and Raytheon essentially since an experiment at White Sands [Missile Range] late last year,” said Sullivan.