ONR Counter Directed Energy Program Fights Back Against Laser Weapons

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November 21, 2016 | Originally published by Date Line: November 21 on

Back in 2014, a laser gun (the Laser Weapon System, or LaWS), went into service on the warship USS Ponce. Created as a defense system against drones, more laser weapons are making their way to the battlefield. But there’s a problem: Their flying targets have begun to defend themselves.

It was back in 1973 that an Air Force experimental laser first shot down a drone. Ever since, drone targets have been used to prove that laser weapons can effectively take down airborne objects. Lasers are still too weak to be effective against ships, tanks, or planes—but drones, which are smaller and lighter, make for easier prey.

Today, miniature kamikaze drones that can deliver explosives to a target, like the US Switchblade, are being used in warfare all over the world. Many nations, including China and Russia, make or export them, while groups like ISIS have developed homemade versions.

As these flying weapons grow in popularity, engineers are developing defenses against them. Lasers, with their pinpoint accuracy and low cost-per-shot, look like the ideal way of zapping a swarm of incoming drones. That’s why DARPA, the Israeli defense manufacturer Rafael, Boeing, and others are investing in counter-drone lasers.

But developing these lasers takes time—which has given researchers a chance to protect drones in new ways. The Office of Naval Research (ONR) leads in this field: Its Counter Directed Energy Weapons program focuses on countering high-energy laser, microwave, and radio-frequency weapons. One of their simplest solutions? Cover drones in mirrors.