A swarm of incoming drones proved no match for the hammer of electromagnetic waves wielded by the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Tactical High Power Operational Responder, or THOR, during a field test last month at Kirtland Air Force Base.
It’s the first time THOR successfully downed multiple targets simultaneously rather than a single incoming drone during a test demonstration, said Adrian Lucero, THOR program manager with the AFRL’s Directed Energy Directorate.
That’s kind of the Holy Grail that THOR was built to achieve.
“It’s big news for us,” Lucero told the Journal. “The April demonstration included multiple targets in a single engagement. It was very successful and shows THOR’s wide beam is capable of taking out swarms of small unmanned aerial systems.”
It’s a milestone that moves THOR one step closer to battlefield deployment following more than five years of research and development, including a year of field testing overseas in 2021 and 2022.
“It was deployed overseas and came back in April 2022,” Lucero said. “We’re doing upgrades now … and doing field tests with different models of drones. The April demonstration was THOR’s first time against the types of drones we used, and it was set up to be a more real-world test.”
It may still be a few years before war-fighters can actually wield THOR on the battlefield. But this latest milestone reflects the steady advance in U.S. Department of Defense efforts to develop fieldable directed energy weapons, which refers to microwave and laser systems.
The DOD has worked for decades to build and deploy them, with AFRL’s Directed Energy Directorate at Kirtland playing a leading role in those efforts. And that’s converted Albuquerque into a “center of excellence” through partnerships with industry.
The AFRL built THOR in cooperation with three companies, including global engineering firms BAE Systems and Leidos, plus the homegrown Albuquerque firm Verus Research, which employs more than 100 people.
Leidos is now incorporating test results from THOR’s overseas deployment into a new prototype called Mjolnir – named after the mythical hammer wielded by the Norse god Thor – under a $26 million AFRL contract.
“We’ve received additional funding for THOR upgrades over the next six to nine months, and then it’s back out to the field for more testing and demonstrations,” Lucero said. “The next-generation system includes key enhancements to make it faster and lighter.”
THOR is designed for rapid deployment wherever needed, with the microwave antennae and foundation stored in a shipping container transported on a flatbed truck. The equipment is stored in parts for easy, snap-together assembly in just a few hours.
A handheld remote control rotates the antennas in all directions as needed, providing 360-degree defense against drones. The firing mechanism and overall system control are operated from a laptop.
THOR’s wide electromagnetic beam – which spreads out in a cone shape like a flashlight – disables the electronics on everything that flies in its path. And a fast-moving gimbal allows it to track and disable targets in a full circle around the microwave platform.
“THOR was extremely efficient with a near continuous firing of the system during the swarm engagement,” said THOR Deputy Program Manager Capt. Tylor Hanson after the April demonstration, conducted at Kirtland’s Chestnut Test Site.
A variety of microwave and laser systems are also being developed under DOD contracts with other companies, such as a dune buggy-mounted laser built by Raytheon Technologies under a $52.4 million AFRL contract.
And Blue Halo – which opened a 200,000-square-foot research, development and manufacturing hub last year at the Sandia Science and Technology Park in Southeast Albuquerque – won a new, $76 million contract in April from the Army Rapid Capabilities and Critical Technologies Office to build a laser weapon prototype for mounting on an Infantry Squad Vehicle. The company has centered all research and development of its foundational “LOCUST” Laser Weapons System at its Albuquerque facility, where it currently employs about 300 people.
Unlike microwave systems, which can down multiple targets simultaneously, laser weapons target single drones, but they offer greater ground mobility defense for warfighters.
“These systems compliment each other,” Lucero said. “All the development work is aimed at creating a layered defense.”
Blue Halo declined to discuss any of its programs or operations.
But Sen. Martin Heinrich, who has spearheaded efforts for years to develop and deploy directed energy weapons, said Blue Halo’s new $76 million contract will build on state-of-the-art defense technologies under development here.
“This contract is an important milestone for the ecosystem of defense research, development and innovation that we are growing in New Mexico,” Heinrich said in a statement. “New Mexico has become the national leader in a range of new defense technologies because we have invested strategically – for many years – in the sustained success of the forward-looking research missions at our defense labs, military bases, and testing ranges.”