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With terrorists, militant groups, and other opponents increasingly employing weaponized drones, the U.S. Army is becoming increasingly aware of the dangers drones pose. In a recent exercise, the service showed off one potential solution, a specially modified Stryker Infantry Carrier Vehicle (ICV) with a laser.
The testbed vehicle, called the Mobile High Energy Laser (MEHEL), knocked out dozens of small quadcopters and remote control target planes. “We were skeptical at first when we were first briefed we’d be shooting down drones with lasers,” Army Captain Theo Kleinsorge, who commanded the MEHEL, told the service’s reporters afterwards. “We achieved a success rate well beyond what we expected we’d have and we are excited to see this go to the next step of the experiment, shooting beyond the horizon, and showing this technology can solve the problem.”
According to thedrive.com, the vehicle is equipped with a machine gun, but its main weapon is a five-kilowatt laser. On top of the laser, the vehicle has powerful cameras to detect and track targets, as well as electronic warfare equipment. The latter system can try and crash an unmanned aircraft by jamming the signal from its control station, as well as try and pinpoint the location of those sites.
The directed energy weapon was more than enough by itself to burn up commercial drones. Kleinsorge testified that his team blasted approximately 50 unmanned targets over the course of the practice session.
The army has become eager to get systems like MEHEL off the test range and into the field. After the end of the Cold War, the U.S. military steadily pared down its short-range air defenses as the threat of an enemy air attack seemed to evaporate. Today’s commercial drones have gotten increasingly sophisticated, and thus more attractive to both terrorists and state militaries looking for cheap aerial weapons. With relatively minor modifications, a quadcopter can become either a useful tool to spot enemy positions and help guide artillery fire or a deadly attacker in its own right. For example, IS fighters in Iraq and Syria are prolific users of these modified hobbyist drones, but Iraqi security forces have begun to follow suit.
The Pentagon has put these types of drones into what it calls groups one and two. Group one consists of unmanned aircraft that weigh less than 9 Kilograms, fly no higher than 365 Meters, and have a top speed of 160 Kilometers an hour or less. Group two includes pilotless aircrafts weighing in at between 9 Kilograms and 25 Kilograms, which can reach altitudes of 1 Kilometers, and have a maximum speed of less than 400 Kilometers per hour.
“Groups one and two present the greatest challenges for Army forces,” according to Army Techniques Publication 3-01.8, Techniques for Combined Arms for Air Defense, which the service published in July 2016. “These systems are more mobile and less noticeable than dismounted scouts with the added benefit of greater standoff enhanced by electronic optics.”
In addition to concerns about their surveillance capabilities, the manual warned of drones dropping munitions, smashing into targets themselves, or simply harassing friendly troops or aircraft. With no dedicated anti-drone weapons in the Army arsenal at the time, the authors recommended trying to elude the small craft first before considering trying to shoot them down.
A vehicle like the MEHEL would enable American commanders another purpose-built tool to destroy the intruders. Engineers hope the system would also allow soldiers to locate and call in artillery or airstrikes against a drone’s ground control station.
The Army foresees further laser applications in the future. “Directed energy will hopefully very quickly become useful in the realm of breaching obstacle belts, in the realm of active defense, of not just shooting down drones, but the ability to destroy incoming anti-tank missiles, mortars, field artillery rounds, across the whole of what the counter-rocket, artillery, and mortar mission is currently,” Kleinsorge explained.