The U.S. Air Force is testing a prototype anti-drone system in Africa, in what USAF officials characterized as, a “real-world setting.”  This is the next step in protecting American troops from the newest scourge on the battlefield. 

As first reported by Breaking Defense back in August, the new system is called the Tactical High-power Operational Responder (THOR). It was developed by the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), Directed Energy Directorate at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico. The system is designed to counter single or swarms of unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) by using microwaves. 

Stephen Langdon, chief of the High-Powered Microwave Technologies Branch of AFRL’s Directed Energy Directorate, said that the “THOR is essentially a high-powered electromagnetic source that we put together to specifically defeat drones.”

The Air Force’s chief scientist, Richard Joseph, said the Air Force decided to test the THOR in Africa due to the increased use of drones on the continent. Additionally, the choice of Africa wouldn’t further escalate the already high tensions with Iran nor invite any countermeasures. 

“We have recently deployed a test system to Africa for base defense […] based on a microwave system. And the purpose is to be able to disrupt and destroy the performance of drones or swarms of drones,” Joseph said. 

“It’s been tested extensively, works remarkably well […] I’ve watched it in action and it’s really quite impressive.”

Both the Air Force and the Army are concerned with base defense in future conflicts, with the Air Force taking the lead in the drone-killing realm. Other potential defense measures include weapons, nets, and missiles. But the THOR system is reportedly giving base defenses the ability to engage drone swarms from farther and decrease the engagement time for the base defense. 

THOR uses high power electromagnetic microwaves to counter and fry electronic circuits. When a target is identified, THOR discharges with nearly instantaneous impact. The system can be used across a wide spectrum of airspace.

THOR costs a paltry $15 million to develop and is easily transportable. It can be stored completely in a 20-ft Conex container and fitted in any C-130. Its intuitive user interface allows the Air Force to easily train troops on its use and capabilities. 

Drone use was a key factor in the recent conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, where numerically and tactically superior Armenian forces were decimated by Azerbaijani troops equipped with Turkish and Israeli drones. 

More troubling is the fact that terrorist groups are increasingly using drones in conflicts in the Middle East and Africa. Fighters from the Islamic State (ISIS) have been using drones in both Syria and Iraq. Houthi rebels in Yemen used a drone to launch an airstrike against a Saudi Arabian warship. 

In Nigeria, President Mohammad Buhari stated a couple of years ago that terrorists from Boko Haram and the Islamic State were increasingly using drones to surveil Nigerian military forces. Their use was considered a critical factor in the rise of attacks against the military. 

Threats against U.S. bases overseas is a key topic in future developments. Breaking Defense’s piece cited a report by Rand Corporation. According to the report:

“The gap between the cruise missile threat and the U.S. joint force’s capacity and capability to counter the threat is particularly worrisome. Constraints on resources and Army prioritization of mobile short-range air defenses for forward forces suggest that shortfalls in airbase air defenses are likely to continue unless U.S. Department of Defense force planning and posture decisions give higher priority to these point defenses.”

Although THOR has not been adopted yet as Joseph pointed out, it is “better than anything else” available now. He added that “the capabilities that can be incorporated in the system are increasing day by day.”