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Air Force to deploy ground-based lasers in first field test of ‘directed energy’ weapon

The military says the systems will be tested to see how they perform against small drones.

The Air Force said Friday it is planning the first operational field test of laser weapons, which are part of a $23 million Raytheon contract. The test, to be conducted in an undisclosed location outside the continental United States, will focus on how the weapons perform against small drones. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

The Air Force announced Friday it will soon deploy two ground-based laser weapons to an undisclosed location to test how they can be used against small drones, the service’s first “operational field test” of an experimental “directed energy” weapon.

On Friday afternoon, the Air Force announced a $23 million sole-source contract for two of Raytheon’s High Energy Laser Weapons Systems, through which the systems are to be tested for 12 months in an undisclosed “contested environment” outside the continental United States.

“What we really want to do is figure out how we can deploy these systems in an environment where our warfighters work and train every day,” said Evan Hunt, director of high energy laser and counter-UAS at Raytheon. (UAS stands for unmanned aerial system.)

Lockheed Martin gets ready to test a laser weapon on a fighter jet

The 10-kilowatt lasers are to be mounted on small ground-based vehicles and aimed using an interface similar to a video game controller. The prototype laser weapons were built by Raytheon and incorporate a range of components from the commercial technology industry, including high-performance lithium-ion batteries, the same type used in electric vehicles.

Because laser weapons could fire constantly without wasting ammunition, military technology experts have theorized they could one day be useful in combating the small, remotely operated quadcopter drones that ISIS has used. They are also expected to be an effective counter against swarming attack drones, a concept that a handful of countries are exploring.

“The fact that it’s a laser weapon allows you to put energy in target at the speed of light. It can be an instantaneous heating event,” said Michael Jirjis, who leads the Air Force’s directed energy experimentation projects.

Jirjis later said in an email that the test will be the first “operational field assessment” of a laser weapon.

He said the effort is the first Air Force deployment “for an operational field assessment of lasers for counter UAS and the first time we have the entire AF Enterprise intimately engaged across the acquisition community, test centers, operators, and headquarters.”