Defense contractor Raytheon has been tasked with designing, building, and testing a pair of directed energy weapons for the U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force. Unlike cutting-edge laser systems that use the power of light to down airborne threats, the new weapons will use ultra-powerful microwave emitters to fry the electronics of attacking drones, missiles, and other electronically guided ordinance.
According to RTX Corporation, which owns Raytheon, the two prototypes are expected to be delivered in 2024 and 2026, respectively.
Directed Energy Weapons Increasingly Valuable in Asymmetrical Warfare
Traditional munitions like bullets use kinetic force to damage or destroy attacking vehicles and personnel. Unfortunately, the cost of more accurate systems like guided missiles is often prohibitively disproportionate when compared to the cost of the attacking vehicle.
For example, the Israeli Iron Dome system that uses missiles can cost as much as $100,000 per shot to bring down a drone or mortar that costs a mere fraction of that amount. Further complicating the issue is the fact that adversaries are increasingly using drones to mount attacks, including the October 7th, 2023, attack on Israel.
To counter what officials have termed asymmetrical threats, the Israeli government has installed a battery of laser cannons known as Iron Beam. According to an April 2022 tweet by Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennet, Iron Beam can down incoming mortar and drones at the cost of only $3.50 per shot.
Israel has successfully tested the new “Iron Beam” laser interception system.
This is the world’s first energy-based weapons system that uses a laser to shoot down incoming UAVs, rockets & mortars at a cost of $3.50 per shot.
These savings and the increasing effectiveness of laser-powered directed energy weapons have not been lost on American armed forces, who have tasked military contractors like Lockheed Martin and Raytheon with building customized combat laser systems, many of which have already been delivered to the armed forces.
Now, U.S. forces have added microwave weapons to their wish list. According to Raytheon, they will not have to wait long.
From Thor’s Hammer to DEFEND
Under the terms of the newly awarded $31.3 million contract awarded by the Naval Surface Warfare Division’s Dahlgren Division, Raytheon will be tasked to “design, build and test” a pair of microwave-based directed energy weapons. Part of the Directed Energy Front-line Electromagnetic Neutralization and Defeat (DEFEND) program, the weapons will use high-powered microwave antennae to bombard incoming drones with enough energy to essentially fry their internal electronics. The resulting blast should disable guidance and control systems, rendering them inoperable or even dropping them out of the sky altogether.
“Non-kinetic defense systems are a key part of America’s national defense strategy,” said Colin Whelan, president of Advanced Technology at Raytheon, in a press release announcing the newly awarded contract. “The new iterations of Raytheon’s high-power microwave systems are cost-effective and reliable solutions that operate at the speed of light – enabling our warfighters to defend against faster and more maneuverable threats.”
In 2021, The Debrief covered a similar system developed by the Air Force Research Labs (AFRL) that also uses microwaves to down enemy drones. Dubbed THOR (Tactical High Power Operational Responder) for the Norse god of thunder, the system was so successful that the AFRL added another weapons platform using the same technology named after Thor’s hammer, Mjölnir.
“Because THOR was so successful, we wanted to keep the new system’s name in the family,” said Adrian Lucero, THOR program manager from AFRL’s directed energy directorate at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico. “Mjölnir will focus on creating a detailed blueprint for all future [counter-unmanned aerial system high-power microwave] systems with enhanced range and technology for detecting and tracking” drones.
According to the AFRL’s system project page, “the system uses high power microwaves to cause a counter electronic effect. A target is identified, the silent weapon discharges in a nanosecond, and the impact is instantaneous.”
This technology will also power the new Raytheon systems, meaning Navy and Air Force personnel will enjoy the benefits of a system that can down threats at the speed of light before they can get close enough to do damage.
Deliveries of Prototype Microwave Directed Energy Weapons Expected in 2024 and 2026
In their press release, Raytheon points out that they have been working with high-powered microwave systems for 80 years, including systems like the Counter-Electronic High Power Microwave Extended Range Air Base Defense, known as CHIMERA. They are also working hand in hand with the AFRL, meaning the expertise that developed THOR and THOR’s Hammer will pair with the track record of Raytheon to quickly and efficiently deliver these systems surprisingly quickly.
“Work on this contract is being conducted in Tucson, Arizona, in partnership with the U.S. Air Force Research Lab, Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division, and the Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering,” the company explains. “Prototypes are expected to be delivered in fiscal years 2024 and 2026.”
Christopher Plain is a Science Fiction and Fantasy novelist and Head Science Writer at The Debrief. Follow and connect with him on X, learn about his books at plainfiction.com, or email him directly at email@example.com.