WASHINGTON: The market for weapons that can shoot down small drones, used by the likes of Hezbollah and Daesh, should rise from almost nothing to “several billion dollars” over the next five years. Raytheon is pushing hard to lock in as much of this market as it can, building both High Energy Laser (HEL) and High Powered Microwave (HPM) weapons that can find, fix and kill or disable the increasingly cheap and capable drones.
Evan Hunt, the company’s senior manager for HEL, offered that market estimate when I asked him his estimate for the market over the next five years. Considering there is roughly a quarter of a billion in the 2019 Pentagon budget request for Air Force directed energy work, that’s a mighty steep curve.
But the mini-drone threat is a high priority for the Pentagon, along with anti-aircraft defenses in general. Daesh has used commercial drones to drop hand grenades. Hezbollah has used similar setups to strike Daesh. The Iraqi police and military have used commercial drones for similar purposes. And the Russians have used drones large and small to target Ukrainian troops for devastating artillery strikes.
It’s getting so anyone can buy a drone for $1,000 or less, fiddle with it a bit and turn it into a reconnaissance and strike platform. It can’t drop 1,000 pound bombs but it can track you, kill a few people and keep on going. A swarm of such drones was recently used to attack Russia’s largest base in Syria. Worried about the intelligence that could be gathered and the chaos and damage that attacks could cause for Forward Operating Bases, nuclear power plants and ports, the military is pushing to get capabilities fielded.
Now compare the $1,000 drone to $38,000 for a single Stinger — the smallest, cheapest anti-aircraft missile in the US arsenal — and you see the military’s problem. Even a relatively low-budget adversary can afford more drones than we can afford missiles to stop them. Old-school machinegun fire can shoot them down, but stray bullets can end up in unpleasant places; traditional electronic warfare can shut down their control links back to their human operators, but drones are becoming increasingly autonomous, capable of navigating on their own.
That brings us to so-called directed energy weapons. Lasers burn a hole in the target; microwaves fry its electronics. Lasers are inherently precise and both types of weapons run off electricity — which means the cost per shot is potentially pennies, and the ammunition doesn’t run out as long as there’s gas in the generator. All of a sudden wave after wave of swarming drones don’t look nearly as intimidating.
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