The U.S. Army has taken possession of its most promising anti-drone swarm technology yet, a new system that uses microwave radiation to disable drones, literally causing them to fall out the sky en masse. The system, based on Epirus’ Leonidas counter-drone system, sends out a wide beam capable of targeting several drones at once, decimating incoming swarms.
Defense contractor Epirus has delivered a prototype weapon known as Indirect Fire Protection Capability–High-Power Microwave (IFPC-HPM) to the U.S. Army. The Army’s Rapid Capabilities and Critical Technologies Office spearheaded the effort, which will result in Epirus delivering a total of four prototypes. The Army plans to test the systems extensively to mature the brand-new tech and determine its effectiveness against a wide variety of unmanned aerial systems.
The Swarming Threat
Unmanned vehicle technology, in the form of remote controlled or autonomous drones, has upended warfare on the tactical level. A quadcopter drone, equipped with a camera, can provide an agile reconnaissance platform for ground forces. The same drone, armed with a grenade or an anti-tank shaped charge, can bomb infantry hiding in trenches or even disable a 65 main battle tank.
Drones developed by HAVELSAN fly as a part of the Mixed Swarm Operation at Kalecik UAV Test Center in Ankara, Turkiye, on August 19, 2023.
The same drone also becomes nearly unstoppable when part of an AI-driven swarm, overwhelming even the most organized and well-equipped defenders. If an enemy force launches a 20-drone swarm and the defenders manage to shoot down 19, that seems like a successful defense. After all, not every defensive action destroys 95 percent of the attacking force. But if each of the drones costs $2,000, and the one drone that survives destroys a $4 million dollar tank, it’s actually a successful attack.
An Electromagnetic Flamethrower
The defense industry has responded to drones with a variety of solutions, mostly using existing weapons and modifying them for a short-range air defense role. Solutions have included using machine guns, small-caliber automatic cannon, missiles, or even lasers. The problem is, with the exception of automatic cannon using programmable airburst fuzes, each can only take out a single drone per shot.
An anti-drone weapon must detect one drone, track it, lock on to it, fire, and fire again if the weapon misses. It must repeat this process again and again, a time-consuming effort that means not every drone is engaged before the attackers start reaching their targets.
Epirus is also developing a version of Leonidas that is mounted on a Stryker infantry combat vehicle, allowing it to operate with front line forces.
The Leonidas counter-drone system takes a different approach. The system consists of a large, rectangular, flat antenna that looks like the AN/MPQ-65 radar phased array radar system that’s part of the Patriot missile defense system. The two systems are similar in that they both are designed to broadcast electromagnetic energy across a wide area, in one case to detect a target and in another to destroy it.
What sets Leonidas apart from other counter-drone systems is its broad electronic attack capability. Leonidas broadcasts microwave radiation that disables drones in mid-flight, shutting down their onboard systems and forcing them to tumble from the sky. The burst of radiation is not delivered in a narrow beam that affects single drones but a wide beam capable of taking out multiple drones at once. It is, for all intents and purposes, an invisible, electromagnetic flamethrower that can affect every drone within the cone of microwave radiation.
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Software control means Leonidas can quickly alter its output to match the threat. Just like software-defined radios that can quickly change frequencies, boost power, or perform other functions that used to be done manually, Leonidas’ software allows the operator to shape its microwave beam and alter voltage. This makes the antenna capable of precision fire one moment, broadcasting a narrow beam that can take down single drones, then quickly adjusting to fire a broader one that can eliminate entire waves of drones.
As the wars in Ukraine and the Middle East have shown, drones have irreversibly changed the nature of warfare. Stopping drone swarms, which require only one drone getting through to be a success, is a daunting prospect. An electromagnetic flamethrower that is instant death to any drone in range was on nobody’s bingo card, but that’s human innovation for you