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Air Force to begin combat test of Star Wars-type solution to taking down drones

A picture taken on Jan. 13, 2020, during a press tour organised by the US-led coalition fighting the remnants of the Islamic State group, shows a member the U.S. forces walking past a drone in the Ain al-Asad airbase in the western Iraqi province of Anbar. (Ayman Henna/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)
April 07, 2020

Back in December, tales of drones harassing northeastern Colorado were heard.

If they ever come back, the Air Force may have a new way to zap them from the sky. The service announced Monday it is ready to test its first high-energy lasers for use against enemy drones overseas.

“(Troops) will utilize this system as an operational asset against small unmanned aircraft systems for the duration of the field assessment,” said Michael Jirjis, who headed development of the laser for the Air Force Research Laboratory in Ohio.

The Air Force said it had no involvement in swarms of drones spotted over ranchland in sparsely-populated areas near Colorado’s border with Kansas and Nebraska. But the service has been viewing drones with growing alarm for years.

At F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyo., the Air Force has a program focusing on drones that could pose a security risk to domestic bases. The new lasers, with models under consideration from the Air Force lab and defense contractor Raytheon, would take aim at drones that have already proven worrisome in the Persian Gulf.

Iranian drones were tied to a 2019 attack on Saudi oil production facilities and have been used by Islamic State militants to drop grenades. While the Air Force hasn’t announced where the new lasers will first be tested, the Persian Gulf is all but certain, thanks to those threats.

The Air Force has been experimenting with lasers in a number of programs since the 1980s. One sought powerful lasers as part of the Star Wars program during the Reagan years, but those weapons never came to the fruition.

In the early 2000s, the Air Force and the Missile Defense worked together to place a chemically powered laser aboard a Boeing 747 jet. That work was abandoned after it went billions of dollars over budget.

Now, the military is looking at more modest solid-state lasers, which could solve a lot of problems in the future.

Relatively cheap and lightweight, the lasers convert electricity into focused beams of light that destroy targets by melting them or blinding their sensors.

Lasers are cheaper to fire than one-time-use missiles, faster than bullets, and create little debris on training ranges.

The new generation of lasers has drawn field tests from the Army, Air Force and Navy in recent years.

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

Key questions for researchers include whether lasers are powerful enough to take down targets and fast enough to deal with several incoming drones at the same time.

If the lasers don’t work out, researchers are also looking into using microwave beams to take down drones. That weapon would do to a drone what a microwave over does to a frozen burrito.

In Colorado, no conclusion has been reached on the drone sightings that enthralled the state late in 2019. Several theories have arisen, but none have completely explained the rash of sightings that went on for a month.


© 2020 The Gazette