Drones and laser weapons are expected to play a critical role in next-gen warfare and the US expectedly leads the race. Now the North American nation is on its way to miniaturize bulky anti-drone laser systems to create a handheld weapon, similar to ones shown in science fiction movies.
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Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) or drones have proliferated quickly and are now accessible to nations as well as to non-state actors and individuals.
A report prepared by the Congressional research service noted that these systems could potentially offer the US’ adversaries low-cost means of conducting intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions against—or attacking—the American forces.
The problem is serious, especially because drones’ small size, their construction material, and flight altitude prevent their detection by traditional air defense systems.
Consequentially, in the financial year 2022, the Department of Defense (DOD) plans on spending at least $636 million on counter-UAS (C-UAS) research and development and at least $75 million on C-UAS procurement, the report highlighted.
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C-UAS Tech: A Glimpse
C-UAS technology can employ a varied number of methods to detect the presence of hostile or unauthorized drones. One way to do so is to use infrared, electro-optical, or acoustic sensors to detect a target by its heat, visual, or sound signatures, respectively.
Another possible method to detect drones is to employ radar systems. Both these methods face certain drawbacks due to their limited signatures and size. The third method is to track and identify the wireless signals used to control the UAS, commonly using radio frequency sensors.
All three methods are often combined to provide a more effective, layered detection capability. Once a drone is detected, it can then either be engaged or disabled. The electronic warfare technique of “jamming” can interfere with a drone’s communications link with its operator.
Jamming devices can fall anywhere on the weight spectrum- they could weigh 5 to 10 pounds and be “man-portable”, or weigh as much as several hundred pounds and be positioned in fixed locations or mounted on vehicles.
Guns, nets, directed energy, traditional air defense systems, or even trained animals like eagles can all be utilized to neutralize or destroy drones. DOD is developing and procuring several different C-UAS technologies to try to ensure a robust defensive capability.
US Navy’s Laser Weapon
A DOD contract notice filed in August this year reveals that the US Office of Naval Research (ONR) ordered a “compact, portable” laser weapon system. This means that the Pentagon is essentially funding “a real-life ray gun”.
This weapon, known as the Counter-Unmanned Air Systems High Energy Laser Weapon System (C-UAS HELWS), will be used by the Navy to hunt down drones.
This is not the first time that the US military is trying to develop a handheld laser gun. In 2005, the US Air Force unveiled what it called the Personnel Halting and Stimulation Response (PHaSR) weapon. But the program has its share of controversy.
The idea was to operate the gun from much farther distances. The laser had to be powerful enough to reach such distances, but the problem was that it could permanently blind people who were too close to it, a violation of the Geneva Convention.
Lasers are extremely effective against airborne unmanned systems since a focused beam of light is capable of quickly heating a drone’s exterior. This can induce structural failure and cause the drone to crash. In the case of a fixed-wing drone, this method could mean potentially burning one of the wings off.
A laser is capable of downing a quadcopter-style drone by melting a plastic or metal arm that supports one of its propellers. It could also swiftly set a drone’s liquid fuel supply ablaze or blind its optical sensors—especially the ones used by a far-off human controller to guide the UAS to its specific target.
Not only do lasers move at the speed of light, but they also don’t need to be “led” to their target. Constraints such as gravity, which seriously affect the efficacy of ballistic projectiles like bullets or cannon shells at extended distances, are of no consequence to lasers. Although the generator powering lasers can run out of fuel or battery, technically, the laser itself can’t run out of ammunition.
Interestingly, a Chinese company had in 2018 claimed to have developed a laser gun that can hit targets several hundred meters away, according to South China Morning Post.
Who Bagged The Contract?
The US Navy awarded a contract to laser specializing MZA Associates of Albuquerque, New Mexico. MZA is to “ design, develop, deliver, integrate, test and demonstrate a compact, portable, low-cost and reliable C-UAS HELWS.”
Frank Peterkin, the Program Officer at the ONR, told Forbes that “under the contract with the Navy, MZA is developing a transportable laser weapon system to enable defense against adversary unmanned aerial vehicles”.
Peterkin highlighted that the weapon is not portable in the usual sense, in that “[t]he full system will still require machinery — trucks, cranes, et cetera — for initial emplacement and/or relocation to other sites.”
This means that the C-UAS HELWS is still miles away from the handheld ray guns popularized in science fiction. However, the development of this weapon definitely demonstrates a trend in laser weapon miniaturization, made possible by government-funded research and development.
The new weapon will be a size smaller than the smallest current laser – the HELWS developed by Raytheon in 2019. The weapon was developed within 2 years of the US Air Force’s challenge to Raytheon to build a laser small enough to carry on a JLTV (a dune buggy kind of vehicle).
Meanwhile, the MZA is expected to finish work on the new weapon in August 2023.