The US Army is looking into all sorts of ways to blast drones out of the sky. Including—get this—with a frickin' laser beam.
In April 2016, the ground combat branch deployed a truck-mounted laser cannon to a trial at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. During the exercise, troops used the beam to torch a tiny, quadcopter-type drone , the kind you can buy online.
"We did a lot of preparation … seeing if we could track the airborne targets among ground clutter," Adam Aberle, the program manager in charge of the High Energy Laser Mobile Test Truck, or HELMTT, told Army reporters. "We absolutely blew lots of stuff up."
HELMTT works like this. From back of an eight-wheel, 10-ton truck, crews aim the turret-mounted 10-kilowatt laser blaster in any direction. Situated high on top of the vehicle, operators can even point the beam at a downward angle to snipe very-low-flying drones.
Unlike in Star Wars, the laser beam doesn't hit its mark like a conventional bullet does. Instead, soldiers keep the laser pointed at a drone or other object until the target melts or bursts into flames.
For more than a decade, the Pentagon has been working on different types of energy weapons. The main goal is to shoot down incoming ballistic missiles. The Army and its sister services quickly realized that the high-energy beams could also take out smaller rockets, artillery rounds and other targets.
"There is a need for short-range air defense, and lasers are one of those technologies that will meet that need," Aberle noted. As the Pentagon trimmed down after the fall of the Soviet Union, Army air-defense units were some of the first to go.
A foreign air force hasn't attacked American forces on the ground since North Vietnamese biplanes bombed a radar site in Laos in an odd, singular incident during the Vietnam War. Today, most of the Army's air-defenders operate Patriot missiles, which are best suited to taking down high-flying jets and missiles.
The Army National Guard owns almost all of the remaining shorter-range Avenger systems. With their eight Stinger missiles and single machine gun, these trucks are better able to handle lower- and slower-flying aircraft.
But the American monopoly on pilotless planes and choppers is long over. So, in September 2014, the Army and Boeing first tested a prototype of the laser-armed heavy truck against mortar rounds and small drones.
A year later, the ground combat branch entered into a research partnership with Boeing to work together on the weapon. HELMTT is the latest product of this arrangement. It uses many of the same components as the earlier system.
The engineers eventually want to replace the existing laser with a new version that's six times as powerful. This upgrade would allow gunners to hit targets farther away and better pierce through dust and fog.
Without sufficient power, particles in the air can deflect, and as a result weaken, laser light. "To put it in perspective, if you double the power, you half the engagement time," Aberle explained. To point the laser in the right direction to begin with, any finished product will also need powerful radars and other sensors.
Unfortunately, the Army probably wants these beam cannons, like, yesterday. Enemy drones are increasingly popping up in conflicts all over the world.
During a recent flare-up in the disputed Caucasian region of Nagorno-Karabakh in April 2016, Azerbaijani forces reportedly used an Israeli-made suicide drone to kill a bus-load of ethnic Armenian volunteers. Unlike a traditional missile, the IAI Harop can loiter over the battlefield, waiting for the best opportunity to ram itself into an enemy position.
In Iraq and Syria, Islamic State terrorists regularly film their attacks using quadcopters like the one HELMTT zapped in the recent test. The group claims it is also using the easy-to-fly drones to help direct its troops.
Officials in Washington worry that militants could strap small explosive payloads to these cheap flying machines. Regardless of how effective that idea might be, there's no doubt drones have tremendous P.R. value. Their cameras can capture great footage for slick-looking propaganda videos.
And this is to say nothing of larger, purpose-built military drone types such as China's CH-4. Similar in many respects to the American Predator, the missile-armed CH-4 has shown up in the arsenals of Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, and Saudi Arabia.
Whenever engineers do finish their work on the laser truck, it will still only be one part of Army's new anti-aircraft arsenal. With so many potential threats, the ground combat branch doesn't want to rely on just one weapon.
For as long as it's been working on HELMTT, the Army has been developing a more conventional mobile missile-launcher called the Indirect Fire Protection Capability, or IFPC.
Installed on a smaller standard, six-wheel Army truck, IFPC can hold up to 15 missiles of different types.
In March 2016, engineers test-fired the new weapon multiple times at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. The truck successfully launched AIM-9X Sidewinder missiles — a common air-to-air weapon for American fighter jets — and the ubiquitous Hellfire laser-guided anti-tank munition.
On top of that, the Army truck lobbed a number of Israeli Tamir interceptors during the experiments, as seen in the video below. Tamir is the weapon behind the Iron Dome defense system. Since 2011, Iron Dome has shot down more than a thousand terrorist rockets, according to Israeli authorities.
As the tests continue, it is entirely possible the Army's weaponeers will try out even more different missiles in the launcher. The final version could be able to destroy enemy planes and drones, blast incoming artillery rounds, and attack targets on the ground. The Army hopes to have a completed design sometime in 2017.
To complement the missile system, troops may also get a massive cannon. In April 2015, Army testers blasted yet another small drone with an experimental gun. The ultimate plan calls for a twin-barrel, 50-millimeter weapon that can spit out 200 rounds per minute.
It shouldn't be long before the Army has lots of different ways of taking out enemy drones.