A laser defense system burned several flying drones out of the sky at army base in Oklahoma, demonstrating it can handle multiple threats per engagement. The U.S. military is pushing to develop laser weapons as a counter to the threat of drone swarms against military bases, especially air bases, where a single drone can do a lot of damage against multi-million dollar aircraft.
Advanced Test High Energy Asset, or ATHENA, is a 30 kilowatt laser weapon system that uses the 30 kilowatt Accelerated Laser Demonstration Initiative (ALADIN) laser. ALADIN combines the power of three 10 kilowatt fiber lasers into a single 30 kilowatt beam. The use of multiple lasers means it can also operate at lower levels, say 10 or 20 kilowatts, if necessary. Thirty kilowatts is sufficient to inflict structural damage against drones, causing them to fall out of the sky.
Lasers are concentrated beams of light that transmit large amounts of electromagnetic radiation, expressed in kilowatts, against their target. Pointed at a target, the laser causes rapid heating on the surface. This can cause objects to melt and fuel tanks to ignite. A drone can fail structurally, falling out of the sky, or burst into flames.
Lockheed Martin’s press release says ATHENA torched several flying drones, including fixed wing (glider-type) and rotor (quadcopter) drones. The company says a “government command and control (C2) system and radar sensor” detected the drones, then passed on the radar track to airmen controlling the laser weapon.
The U.S. Air Force is concerned about the threat of drone swarms against air bases and the multi-million dollar radars and aircraft stationed there. Even a small drone carrying a grenade-sized explosive warhead could easily disable a $80 million F-35 Joint Strike Fighter parked on the tarmac of an air base. Drones swarms could also do things like attack Patriot missile batteries and their fragile radars, destroying them and clearing the way for more powerful air attacks.
In January 2018 Russian forces beat back a drone swarm launched against their main air base, Khmeimim Air Base, in Syria. The attacking drones, coordinated by Syrian rebels, were all shot down. Despite its failure, the attack put the world’s armed forces on notice: the age of the drone swarm was here.
The release describing this latest ATHENA test lacks key details: how many drones were there? How quickly were the drones engaged? Did the laser miss? Did the data link between the sensor and the airmen aiming the laser work smoothly? How many kilowatts did ATHENA require to shoot down the drones? How far away were the drones from the laser when they were shot down?
According to Lockheed Martin ATHENA is also capable of shooting down incoming artillery shells and rockets. This also has a U.S. Air Force application. In 1967, a Viet Cong rocket attack on Bien Hoa air base in South Vietnam killed eight Americans, wounded 173, and destroyed 11 aircraft on the ground. In anti-artillery mode, ATHENA operates autonomously, with no “man in the loop” to authorize the laser to fire. Artillery rounds simply move too fast for the system to seek permission from a human operator.