ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The U.S. military recently tested a new, high-powered microwave weapon built by Raytheon in New Mexico to down swarms of incoming drones and missiles.
Raytheon successfully demonstrated the system in December during an Army exercise at Fort Sill, Ok., where the ground-based weapon shot down 33 unmanned aerial vehicles with high-power electromagnetic waves, simultaneously knocking out groups of two-to-three drones at a time, said Raytheon New Mexico site director Susan Kelly.
“At one point in the final demonstration scenario, there were eight drones coming at us from different directions in groups of two and three and we took them all out,” Kelly said. “We showed the system is now ready and available as a counter-swarm weapon to down multiple drones at once.”
The prospect of incoming swarms of UAVs is a rapidly-emerging battlefield threat, and the U.S. military is considering laser and microwave weapons as a way to counter them, Kelly said. In the Fort Sill experiment, Raytheon also demonstrated its high energy laser to destroy 12 more UAVs in flight, plus six stationary mortar projectiles.
It will take more time for such weapons, known as directed energy systems, to actually be deployed in war zones, but the military is developing the tactics, techniques and procedures for those weapons, said Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-NM.
As a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Heinrich has spearheaded bipartisan efforts to get the Pentagon to move directed energy systems into final test-and-demonstration phases. The federal spending bill signed last month by President Donald Trump earmarks $158 million for directed energy development, including about $70 million for work by the Air Force Research Laboratory at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque. AFRL worked last year with Raytheon under a $2 million contract to get that company’s microwave system ready for the Fort Sill demonstration.
Two laser systems have been deployed to date — one on the USS Ponce in the Persian Gulf and one on a Stryker armored vehicle in Europe — but no microwave weapons are yet being used.
“We’re at a turning point where we’re truly moving from the idea phase to the implementation phase,” Heinrich told the Journal this week. “It’s a moment of inflection now as the Pentagon conducts all the managerial work to figure out how these weapons will actually be used in war-fighting environments.”
That’s a huge step forward, given the military’s cautious approach in the past to directed energy weapons, Heinrich said.
Many systems were either partly or fully developed in New Mexico, including Raytheon’s ground-based anti-swarm weapon.
Raytheon and Boeing also worked together on the military’s Counter-electronics High-Powered Microwave Advanced Missile Project, or CHAMP, which places a microwave weapon in a cruise missile to destroy electronics, computers and other systems as it flies over buildings and installations. Raytheon upgraded two CHAMP missiles under a $5 million contract last year for the AFRL and Navy to adapt for delivery on B-52 bombers.
Such work has grown Raytheon’s Albuquerque workforce to about 190 employees, with 50 more hires expected in coming months, Kelly said. The company has also expanded its facilities at the Sandia Science and Technology Park, adding a 72,000-square-foot building to its existing 103,000-square-foot space.
If the military opts to acquire Raytheon’s anti-swarm microwave system, it would likely be built in Albuquerque, although that depends on how many are ordered.
“It depends on the quantity and timeline to do it,” Kelly said. “If the order is for one, for sure we’d do it here, but if it’s thousands, we’d have to think about it.”
Microwave systems like the anti-swarm weapon offer rapid, low-cost, unlimited firepower that relies on a diesel generator.
“Missile and bullet rounds can be expensive and take time to reload, but this doesn’t have those issues,” Kelly said. “It’s an unlimited magazine that just uses energy. As long as the generator is operating, you can keep on firing.”
Today’s easy access to inexpensive drones that can be cheaply and rapidly modified with explosives makes such next-generation directed energy weapons critical, said Raytheon spokesman John Patterson.
“As threats advance and become more challenging, we’re being called open to innovate new speed-of-light solutions,” Patterson said. “That’s what this system offers. It game-changing technology.”