The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) plans to begin testing two high-power microwave efforts over the next few years as plans to use directed energy weapons to counter drones and cruise missiles ramp up, a senior AFRL official said May 20.

The laboratory’s directed energy directorate expects delivery of the Tactical High-Power Operational Responder (THOR) system next month, said Kelly Hammett, who leads the directorate based at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico. That program intends to field a system that can track and address multiple short-range targets, he said Wednesday at the Booz Allen [BAH]-Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments’ annual directed energy conference in Washington, D.C.

Photo: Air Force

The second system in development is called the Counter-Electronic High-Power Microwave Extended-Range Air Base Air Defense, or “CHIMERA,” which will be a “longer-range, higher power system to address some of the threats that might be coming at our air bases,” Hammett said. That system is due to be delivered in fiscal year 2020.

Those efforts were secured with funding from the Office of the Secretary of Defense on behalf of all the services to build ground-based high-powered microwave prototypes, Hammett added, noting, “We are pretty much the acknowledged center of gravity for high-powered microwave weapons [science and technology] in the services.” The Air Force requested over $124 million in research, development, test and evaluations (RDT&E) funds in the fiscal year 2020 budget proposal.

Hammett pushed for new standards for testing directed energy weapons, stating that the current test policies prohibited the rapid test evaluation that the Pentagon is asking for.

“With the imperative to move faster with fielding and transition of directed energy weapons, we will never succeed with the test policies that we use right now,” he said. “Our hazard assessment and acceptance in mitigation procedures for directed energy are archaic and stifling and they’re not in line with other risks and hazards that we accept.”

He noted that in previous experiments, test operators were required to continuously turn off the laser to avoid harming satellites that were positioned behind aerial targets. “We keep being told, ‘Go fast, go fast, go fast.’ When we take these systems out to the field, and we can never shoot them or shoot them for more than a millisecond at a time, you don’t kill many targets,” he said.

AFRL is working with senior service officials to get new policies implemented so it can move faster on testing its directed energy programs, he said. “We have had some policy reform, [but] we have not had the implementation of that policy reform in the last couple of years that we need to allow the services to move faster and quicker in this area.”

The laboratory is also working through the challenge of operating lasers effectively on subsonic, transonic and supersonic aircraft “in that disturbed flight environment.” That is a “very challenging problem, a major issue” that the science-and-technology community needs to solve, Hammett said.