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Pentagon is developing the Air Force’s first drone-killing microwave weapon

An MQ-9 Reaper at Creech Air Force Base, NV., June 25, 2015. (Senior Airman Cory D. Payne/U.S. Air Force)
September 29, 2019

The Pentagon announced plans on Tuesday to develop the Air Force’s first-ever drone-killing microwave weapon, with plans to have tests completed by Dec. 20, 2020.

Raytheon Co. Missile Systems in Tucson, Ariz., was awarded more than $16 million to develop one prototype PHASER high power microwave system for a field test outside of the United States, according to the Defense Department announcement.

The U.S. Air Force is buying several direct energy (DE) weapons to test in the field where they may soon be deployed in areas where adversaries of the U.S. are using drones more frequently, including North Korea, Africa, Ukraine and the Middle East, Popular Mechanics reported.

“At the moment we have awarded multiple DE systems for use in our field assessment overseas and are working to support multiple bases and areas of responsibility,” Michael Jirjis, the lead on the PHASER experiment, told Popular Mechanics. “We can’t say which specific locations at this time.”

While this development has been in the works for a while, Jirjis noted that it is not a reaction to a few events, “but the realization of a growing need over the past few years.”

But there have been recent events which have lead to galvanized support for drone-killing weapons.

Don Sullivan, Raytheon missile systems’ chief technologist for directed energy, told Popular Mechanics that one recent attack using a very large drone with a high explosive payload that killed 40 people “was a real eye-opener.”

“What happened in Saudi over the weekend was kind of that raised to the nth degree,” Sullivan said, referring to recent drone and missile attacks on Saudi Arabian oil facilities.

PHASER uses a high-powered microwave cannon that emits radio frequencies in a canonical beam to disrupt or destroy drones’ circuits.

“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,” Sullivan said. “And the effect is essentially instantaneous.”

Drones of all sizes are becoming ever-more used in the battlefield on both sides.

Russia launched a new submarine that is capable of carrying nuclear-armed drones and the Army is using mini-drones in Afghanistan to give troops a potentially life-saving vantage point of the battlefield. Iran is also currently developing copycat drones based on ones from the United States and Israel.

With the rise of drone technology, a more formidable ways of targeting and destroying them have also been in the works.

“This is sort of a historic inflection point where directed energy is actually getting out in the field and being utilized,” Sullivan said. “It’s certainly been a dream in the high energy laser community that this would happen.”