Massive ray guns that use microwaves to instantaneously down a swarm of incoming enemy drones are approaching prime-time reality, and could propel New Mexico into a leadership role in the next wave of modern defense technology.
The Air Force Research Laboratory at Kirtland Air Force Base is leading an effort to move such weapons out of the lab and into the hands of war fighters, with help from industry partners like Raytheon Missile Systems’ Ktech division in Albuquerque.
Those efforts have strong backing from New Mexico’s congressional delegation, particularly from Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich, who is spearheading a push to pump more federal spending into development programs and to encourage the Pentagon to move faster on deployment.
“This technology using microwaves and lasers is ready for prime time,” Heinrich told the Journal. “We’ve spent a lot on research and development over the years, but today we’re now capable of shooting down rockets, missiles or mortars that could put our troops in danger. It’s developed enough to go beyond research and put this technology into the hands of Americans to make a difference.”
The military has concentrated in recent years on advancing laser weapons for fighter aircraft, Navy ships and Army vehicles. But alongside that work, the Air Force lab in Albuquerque has done extensive research and development for decades on microwave, or high-power electromagnetic technology, to build systems that could add another layer of defense alongside lasers and conventional missiles and explosives – ones that would destroy enemy systems without harming civilians or infrastructure.
Mary Lou Robinson, chief of the High Power Electromagnetics Division at the Air Force lab, calls it game-changing technology.
“This is not evolutionary improvement in the way we fight wars, but a revolutionary improvement,” Robinson said. “Directed energy systems (lasers and microwaves) have been called ‘systems of the future.’ They are the future, but the future is now.”
The Air Force lab’s role in laser-related work helped build a powerful industry cluster in New Mexico, with commercial contractors creating systems and spinning technology off into commercial markets. The same could occur with microwave technology.
Apart from big firms like Raytheon and Boeing Co., dozens of small, local contractors already work with the lab on microwave technology.
“The AFRL has become the center of microwave development for the nation,” Robinson said. “The Navy is partnering with us on this because of our expertise in these technologies. … Albuquerque and New Mexico are well-poised to be a center of excellence for it.”
Despite decades of research, only a couple of systems have been deployed on the battlefield for actual use, or for testing and demonstration purposes. That includes the Air Force lab’s MaxPower System, which mounted a concentrated electromagnetic power system onto an armored truck. It was deployed for nine months of testing in Afghanistan in 2012 to destroy improvised explosive devices.
The Air Force also used a nonlethal, vehicle-mounted Active Denial System, or “Pain Ray,” in Afghanistan. It causes a burning sensation on skin to disperse crowds or force people to drop their weapons, but it was never used.
Now, the Air Force lab is working with the Navy to adapt its Counter-electronics High-powered Microwave Advanced Missile Project, or CHAMP, for aircraft. The technology would fly over buildings and installations to destroy electronics, computers and other systems using microwaves but no explosions.
Raytheon and Boeing helped build that system, which was successfully flight-demonstrated in 2012.
Over the past two years, Congress has approved $15 million for the CHAMP program here, including nearly $5 million for Raytheon to upgrade two original CHAMP missiles that the Air Force and Navy will now continue to develop and adapt. Raytheon delivered the first one early this year, and the second is about to follow, said Raytheon Ktech site director Steve Downie.
Raytheon also developed its own “Phaser” ground system to protect bases and installations from incoming enemy drones or missiles. It successfully tested Phaser in 2013 at Fort Sill, Okla., downing two unmanned aerial vehicles simultaneously. It’s designed to take out multiple drones in a single sweep as they cross through the microwaves.
“Say there are 20 incoming UAVs,” Downie said. “If they all fly through our field, they all go down.”
That’s different from lasers, which must focus on one target. And lasers need a few seconds to destroy something, whereas microwaves are instantaneous.
“You don’t need to be Annie Oakley if you’re using a shotgun approach,” Robinson said. “The field spreads out to include a slew of UAVs in a large area. … We’re looking at opportunities to support Raytheon’s research and development on this and demonstrate it for base defense.”
If the system is deployed, Raytheon Ktech will manufacture the Phaser in Albuquerque at the Sandia Science and Technology Park, where it has a 103,000-square-foot facility. It’s adding a 72,000-square-foot building at the park this summer to better accommodate work on microwave systems and other technologies. Its workforce is expected to grow from 180 people now to 200 by the end of the year.
Meanwhile, Heinrich is working to accelerate military efforts to deploy both laser and microwave weapons. He called in March for establishment of a new Directed Energy Weapon System Demonstration Fund to develop the tactics, techniques and procedures for future deployment.
But the Pentagon needs to get fully on board to start moving systems from lab to battlefield, Heinrich said.
“The biggest challenge now is not technological; it’s cultural,” Heinrich told the Journal. “I’m optimistic, because the interest we’re seeing by other nations in these weapons is having an impact on the top brass at the Pentagon. I believe it will soon become easier to transition this technology into real systems to defend our troops.”