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Updated December 25th, 2023 at 16:30 IST

How Pentagon’s high-power microwave weapons tackle modern drone challenges

The Pentagon is actively considering high-power microwave (HPM) weapons to counter the rising drone threat.

Yuvraj Tyagi
US Army Apache
Recent conflicts, including the Ukraine crisis and Houthi movements, have spurred the exploration of non-kinetic hard-kill capabilities. | Image:RTX
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In response to the escalating drone threat witnessed in recent conflicts, the Pentagon is actively considering the deployment of high-power microwave (HPM) weapons. These cutting-edge technologies, once classified, are gaining prominence due to their non-kinetic hard-kill capability against both advanced and ordinary drones. 

Over the last two years, military planning and defense industries have witnessed heightened activity. The Ukraine conflict, where civilian drones were employed as kamikaze UAVs, and Russia's introduction of the Lancet loitering munition have accelerated the exploration of countermeasure technologies. The Houthi movement's use of drones over the Red Sea and Hamas employing them against Israel have further underscored the urgency for advanced defense mechanisms. 

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Non-kinetic hard-kill: Exploring high-power microwave Weapons 

High-power microwave (HPM) technology, once shrouded in secrecy, is emerging as a potential game-changer in countering drone threats. With the ability to send a concentrated beam of heavily charged electrical energy, HPMs heat and disable the internal electronics of aerial targets. This 'non-kinetic hard-kill' approach represents a departure from traditional kinetic options and presents a more sophisticated solution.

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Credit- RTX

While HPMs and lasers fall under Directed Energy Weapons (DEWs), they pose technical complexities, high costs, and increased power demands compared to non-kinetic alternatives like jammers. The U.S. military is actively introducing a range of counter-drone systems, with a particular focus on developing and deploying HPM systems. This signifies a shift toward more advanced and targeted defense strategies. 

Global scenarios spark urgency in counter-drone technologies 

Recent global scenarios, including the use of suicide drones by Hamas and Houthi drone attacks over the Red Sea, have heightened the urgency for advanced counter-drone technologies. The multinational naval force formed in response to Houthi drone incidents underlines the critical need for a cost-effective and sustainable strategy. Firing multimillion-dollar missiles against swarms of inexpensive drones is deemed unsustainable, prompting a strategic shift.

Credit- US Army

Recognizing the poor cost-to-benefit ratio in using traditional missiles against cheap drones, Pentagon officials are advocating for a significant increase in the production of counter-drone platforms. The aim is to address the challenge posed by the relatively low cost of small drones, making them the preferred choice for less sophisticated armies, terrorists, and militant groups. 

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The U.S. Army, under the leadership of Maj Gen Sean Gainey, is actively pursuing technologies like directed energy, high-powered microwave, and low-cost interceptors. Recent acquisitions, such as the Leonidas system from Epirus, signify a concerted effort to enhance the country's defense capabilities against evolving drone threats. These technological innovations mark a pivotal moment in the evolution of defense strategies. 

Navigating drone threat challenges 

Despite advancements in HPM technology and other directed energy solutions, challenges persist. The ubiquity and variety of drones make it difficult to define the threat, leading to ongoing debates over what constitutes a drone swarm. Additionally, the high-power requirements and logistical complexities of DEWs pose operational challenges that need to be addressed in the pursuit of effective counter-drone solutions. 

In conclusion, the Pentagon's exploration of high-power microwave weapons represents a strategic shift in response to emerging threats, underlining the importance of staying ahead in the technological arms race against evolving drone capabilities. The pursuit of cost-effective and sophisticated solutions marks a new dawn in military planning and defense strategies. 

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Published December 25th, 2023 at 16:30 IST

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