The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) has countered the emerging threat of drone swarms, using the Tactical High-power Operational Responder (THOR) to take out multiple targets.
As the ongoing conflict in Ukraine has painfully demonstrated, drones are becoming a mainstay in modern warfare – not just for reconnaissance or isolated missile attacks, but as offensive weapons in sustained campaigns. Worse, the shadow on the horizon is the day when technology has advanced to the point where drones can attack in organized swarms in such numbers as to overwhelm conventional air defenses.
There are a number of approaches being explored and one of the more promising is the use of directed energy weapons. One of these is THOR, which uses high-energy microwaves fired in bursts over wide areas to counter in-coming hostile drones. It doesn’t do this by blasting the drones like a laser, but by frying the delicate electronics, causing the robotic aircraft to crash.
Operated by Captain Eric Plummer, a test engineer with AFRL’s Directed Energy Directorate, THOR was set against multiple targets at the Chestnut Test Site, Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico, under realistic conditions. Using a gimbaled aiming system, it was able to track and engage the targets in nanoseconds, across broad areas of the sky, disabling them with high-power microwave (HPM) pulses.
Costing US$18 million, THOR is built into a 20-ft (6-m) transport container that can fit inside a C-130 Hercules transport and can be set up by two soldiers in about three hours. In addition, it has a user-friendly interface that requires only minimal training.
“THOR was extremely efficient with a near continuous firing of the system during the swarm engagement,” said Captain Tylar Hanson, THOR deputy program manager. “It is an early demonstrator, and we are confident we can take this same technology and make it more effective to protect our personnel around the world.”