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Second test of Air Force's drone-killing laser may start later this year

The U.S. Air Force is testing high-powered lasers and microwaves for use of directed energy to shoot down drones and other aerial objects, it said on Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Raytheon
The U.S. Air Force is testing high-powered lasers and microwaves for use of directed energy to shoot down drones and other aerial objects, it said on Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Raytheon

Feb. 17 (UPI) -- Further experiments in directed energy weapons -- which use of lasers and microwaves to intercept hostile airborne objects -- are expected in 2021, the U.S. Air Force said on Wednesday.

A one-year assessment of the High Energy Laser Weapon System 2, or HELWS2, made by Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems, began in spring 2020, with a second test expected 6 to 12 months after it is completed, the Air Force said in a statement.

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The system uses commercial, off-the-shelf equipment to "identify and neutralize hostile or unauthorized UAS [unmanned aerial systems] in seconds and, when connected to a generator, to provide 'a nearly infinite number of shots,'" a Congressional Research Service report said in January.

They follow tests of an earlier version, known as H1, which concentrated on weapons designed to prevent observation and assault by drones.

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The newest tests by the Directed Energy Combined Task Force, or DE CTF, feature better directed energy beams, more power and a concentration on "ruggedized enhancements to ensure transportability and survivability in a wide range of operational environments," the Air Force said.

The DE CTF is the combined work of the Air Force Research Laboratory DE Directorate and personnel of the 704th Test Group Operation Location-AA and Air Force Operational Test & Evaluation Center, both located at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M.

The 704th Test Group is an operating unit of Arnold Engineering Development Complex, headquartered at Arnold Air Force Base, Tenn.

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"This experiment has many notable U.S. Air Force firsts, including the complete training of and operation of the system by Security Forces Airmen, the first directed energy c-UAS [counter-UAS] capability, and the first integration with a base," Lt. Col. Jared Rupp, DE CTF director, said in the press release.

"Additionally, these locations were selected as to significantly enhance c-UAS capability through the use of these DEWs [directed energy weapons], helping to prevent enemy airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and attacks," Rupp said.

Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems received a $23.8 million contract from the Air Force in 2020 for two prototype high-energy laser weapons systems, designed to take out threatening unmanned aerial systems.

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The company also was awarded a contract for a $16 million prototype Phaser high-powered microwave counter-drone system, to be deployed and tested by service personnel within the same timeframe.

The laser uses a variant of Raytheon's Multi-Spectral Targeting System and an electro-optical/infrared sensor to detect and track drones before engaging and neutralizing the threat.

The HELWS, or High Energy Laser Weapons System, then can shoot down a drone. For test and display purposes it was installed on an all-terrain vehicle to demonstrate its maneuverability, similar to a system under testing by the U.S. Army.

The HELWS can deliver intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability and dozens of precise laser shots on a single charge from a standard 220-volt outlet, and can also be paired with a generator to provide a nearly infinite number of shots, Raytheon said in a statement.

"Five years ago, few people worried about the drone threat," Roy Azevedo, president of Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems, said last year.

"Now, we hear about attacks or incursions all the time. Our customers saw this coming and asked us to develop a ready-now counter-capability. We did just that by going from the drawing board to delivery in less than 24 months," Azevedo said.

Since the H2 system is a new class of weapons, no official training or tactics and procedures protocols have been developed, officials said.

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