Air Force Set To Deploy Its Counter-Drone “Phaser” Microwave Weapon Overseas

The U.S. Air Force says it will deploy a prototype of Raytheon’s Phaser high-power microwave counter-drone system for an operational evaluation within months. The service has been experimenting with a number of anti-drone directed energy weapons, which also include lasers, in recent years as the threat of small unmanned aircraft has grown. A Raytheon representative has said that a recent mass drone attack that caused significant damage to oil infrastructure in Saudi Arabia has highlighted these concerns “to the nth degree.”

The Pentagon announced the deal, worth almost $16.3 million, in its daily contracting announcements on Sept. 23, 2019. The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) is managing the program, which it says will include a year-long evaluation of Phaser at an unspecified location “OCONUS,” or “outside the continental United States.” Work under the contract is set to wrap up on Dec. 20, 2020, meaning that this field test is set to start in January at the very latest. AFRL has previously tested Phaser at the U.S. Army’s White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

“Experimentation includes, but is not limited to 12 months of in-field operation by Air Force personnel against unmanned aerial systems threats,” the contracting notice explains. “In addition, experimentation includes but is not limited to operator training, in theater maintenance of systems while collecting availability (full mission capable, partial mission capable, non-mission capable), reliability, maintainability and supportability data, and system operation against real-world or simulated hostile vignettes without disrupting other necessary installation operations.”

Phaser in its current form is a containerized high-power microwave directed energy weapon. Raytheon says one of its goals is to eventually be able to scale down the system into more portable, flexible forms.

Raytheon’s Phaser system., Raytheon

Radars or electro-optical and infrared cameras help cue the system to its targets. It then projects a beam of microwave energy that aims to disrupt a drone’s internal systems, causing it to fall out of the sky or possibly initiate a pre-programmed emergency procedure where it tries to lands or return to a point of origin.

Phaser has the ability to switch from “disrupt” to “destroy” mode, in which it can send a burst of microwave energy sufficiently powerful enough high to fry electronic components inside an unmanned aircraft. The exact effect could be dependant on the system’s range to the target and level of component hardening within the drone.

Depending on the effective range of the system, it could potentially destroy various electronics on other aerial threats, including manned aircraft, helicopters, and missiles. Depending on how Phaser’s turret is configured, it is possible that this beam could be aimed at targets on the ground, as well. The U.S. military has already been investigating the potential uses for high-power microwave weapons in ground roles, especially for force protection purposes, such as stopping threatening vehicles before they reach a base.

It isn’t exactly clear how wide an effective microwave beam the Phaser can fire, but it is known to have been designed to counter groups of drones simultaneously, giving it real anti-swarm potential. It’s unlimited magazine also would help in repulsing sustained attacks from multiple groups of drones.  

Phaser is one of three high-power microwave counter-drone systems that the Air Force is testing. BAE Systems, Leidos, and Verus Research worked under a separate AFRL contract to build the containerized Tactical High-Power Operational Responder design, or THOR. The third system is known as the Counter-Electronic High-Power Microwave Extended-Range Air Base Air Defense, or CHIMERA

THOR, which is supposed to engage targets at shorter ranges, “just simply wasn’t able to hit targets that mattered for mission,” Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics Will Roper told a gathering at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in March 2019. “I have no doubt that eventually the program will be back, that they’ll have tackled their technology challenge, and they’ll be ready to take the next step.”

Less is known about CHIMERA, which the Air Force says is focused on engaging threats at medium-to-long ranges. The service expects to take delivery of a prototype of this system some time in the 2020 Fiscal Year, which begins next month.

Phaser, which Raytheon has been working on in cooperation with various branches of the U.S. military since at least 2013, could offer a capable and more immediate option. The Massachusetts-based defense contractor says the system downed 33 drones, two and three at a time, during one previous U.S. Army exercise.

“The beam is like a searchlight from a lighthouse,” Don Sullivan, chief technologist of directed energy at Raytheon’s Missile Systems business, said in 2018. “The fact that you can simultaneously track and immediately move to the next target to address not just a swarm, but multiple swarms, is a big advantage.”

That last point has become an increasingly pressing concern. Defending against mass drone attacks, to say nothing of swarms of small unmanned aircraft networked together and operating an autonomous swarm, has proven to be very difficult. Just this month, 18 suicide drones struck Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq oil processing facility, the largest of its kind in the world, causing significant damage. Saudi Arabian air defenses were completely ineffectual in responding the attack, which the government in Riyadh, as well as that of the United States and others, say was at least Iranian-sponsored, if Iranian operatives did not carry it out directly.

Wreckage of what Saudi Arabia says are Iranian-made suicide drones, in the foreground, as well as Iranian-made land-attack cruise missiles, in the background, that the country recovered after attacks on its oil infrastructure earlier in September 2019., Saudi Arabia Ministry of Defense

“There are fairly recent incidents, for example in Yemen where a very large drone with a high explosive payload killed about 40 people, at a prayer ground of all places. And that was on YouTube. It was a real eye-opener,” Raytheon’s Sullivan told Popular Mechanics. “What happened in Saudi over the weekend [of Sept. 14-15, 2019] was kind of that raised to the nth degree.”

The potential threat that Iran’s growing drone capabilities pose, even to larger militaries, such as that of the United States, was already on display earlier this year. In July 2019, U.S. Marines on board the U.S. Navy’s Wasp class amphibious assault ship USS Boxer

brought down two Iranian drones in the tense Strait of Hormuz, which links the Persian Gulf to the Gulf of Oman, using all-terrain vehicles on the ship’s deck equipped with radio frequency jammers. 

The latest incidents in Saudi Arabia have also highlighted how low the barrier to entry is for attacks using large numbers of small unmanned aircraft and, as a result, how great the threat actually is, something The War Zone

has called attention to multiple times in the past. Drone use among smaller state actors, as well as non-state groups, will only increase in the future, in general. 

Last year, an AFRL representative notably said they had visited Afghanistan in 2017 and saw insurgent drones routinely monitoring American activities with impunity. Afghanistan is a very likely location for the Air Force’s upcoming 12-month test of Phaser. It is also possible that given recent events, that the service may decide to shift the location of the test to Saudi Arabia.

These same experiences in places such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, and most recently in Saudi Arabia, among other countries, have continually underscored how lower-end point defenses may be the only defense against low- and slow-flying drones. These threats are difficult, if not impossible for many traditional air defense systems to detect and engage. 

At the same time, close-in defenses that rely on conventional weapons, such as a rapid-firing gun, may also not have the magazine depth necessary to engage an entire swarm of unmanned aircraft. For instance, the U.S. Army has a trailer-mounted version of the U.S. Navy’s Mk 15 Phalanx Close-in Weapon System (CIWS) called Centurion, which features a 20mm Vulcan cannon, for defense against artillery shells and rockets and mortar bombs. It is now in the process of updating these systems to be able to engage small unmanned aircraft, as well.

The U.S. Army is also upgrading its Stinger short-range surface-to-air missiles to be better able to engage low- and slow-flying unmanned aircraft. That service is also experimenting with the concept of countering swarms of small drones with its own swarms of suicidal drones, as well, another concept The War Zone

has put forward for some time.

The same realities apply in naval settings, as well. Most U.S. Navy ships have either Phalanx or the RIM-116 Rolling Airframe Missile (RAM) to provide close-in protection. That service has already deployed laser-based directed energy weapons on ships in an experimental capacity as possible options for tackle the increasing drone threat and there are navalized high-power microwave systems in development, as well.

Directed energy weapons show real promise when it comes to countering the growing drone threat, but high-power microwaves are especially attractive because of their potential ability to knock multiple drones out of the sky at once and then quickly engage other swarms. How Phaser performs, or doesn’t, during its field test, will provide valuable additional information about the exact capabilities the U.S. military requires to respond to the already serious threat that small drones pose.

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