Air Force Research Laboratory opens microwave technology facility

Kent Wood, acting director of the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Directed Energy Directorate, sits in an anechoic chamber at the new High Power Electromagnetic Effects and Modeling Facility at Kirtland Air Force Base on Wednesday. The center is AFRL’s latest decade-long facility upgrade, designed to provide the modern infrastructure needed to fully develop emerging technologies for warfighters. (Chancey Bush/Albuquerque Journal)

Air Force Research Laboratory engineers at Kirtland Air Force Base hope to accelerate the development of microwave weapon systems at AFRL’s new high-tech modeling and testing facility that opened Wednesday.

Senior AFRL officials inaugurated the new 12,000-square-foot High Power Electromagnetic Effects and Modeling Center, a $6 million addition to existing buildings in Kirtland. This is AFRL’s latest decade-long facility upgrade, designed to provide the modern infrastructure needed to fully develop emerging technologies for warfighters.

This includes microwave and laser systems — known as “directed energy” — to counter 21st-century threats, such as swarms of enemy drones, and space-based defense capabilities to better engage in today’s new era of space exploration. The competition for global dominance and the expansion of humanity into the universe.

This is the 28th infrastructure project completed under AFRL’s Laboratory Revitalization and Development program since 2009, said Kent Wood, interim deputy director of AFRL’s Directed Energy Directorate.

“More than $100 million has been invested in such facilities to enhance our research capabilities,” Wood told Wednesday’s inauguration attendees. “…it’s all about accelerating our development capabilities.”

These include a new high-tech digital “wargaming” facility due to open in early 2023, where military personnel and laboratory technicians can directly participate in virtual battlefield exercises to test new directed energy and space defense systems.

For decades, AFRL has worked to advance laser and microwave weapons, turning Albuquerque into a “center of excellence” for directed energy through partnerships with industry. These efforts are finally bearing fruit, and the new weapon is now being tested in real-world settings and will likely be fielded in the field in the next few years.

AFRL’s Tactical High Power Operational Responder, or THOR, is the latest example. AFRL built the microwave system to protect military bases from simultaneous attack by multiple unmanned aerial systems, allowing operators to take down swarms of drones with a single blast of electromagnetic waves.

The Joint Counter-UAV Office and the Army Rapid Capabilities and Critical Technologies Office have field-tested THOR during multiple exercises over the past year. Now, under a $26 million AFRL contract, global engineering firm Leidos is integrating the test results into a new prototype called Mjölnir — named after the mythical hammer wielded by the Norse god Thor.

“These tests allow us to take the technology to a warm, dusty, real-world location, where military operators can actually try it out, see how it works, and provide feedback to build the next generation of prototypes,” Wood said. Wall Street Journal.

This cross-collaboration with other DoD entities and industry partners is laying the groundwork for accelerated development.

“We’re putting a lot more emphasis on the speed at which we can get things out of the lab and into the hands of the warfighter, so that we can translate those technologies into new capabilities at a faster rate,” Wood said.

In another collaborative effort, AFRL and the Office of Naval Research are now adapting AFRL-built microwave systems for installation on airborne platforms.

Also, a dune buggy laser system built by Raytheon Technologies is getting closer to military deployment. Since 2019, AFRL has awarded Raytheon $52.4 million to build out its mobile counter-drone technology, the High Energy Laser Weapon System, or HELWS. Raytheon demonstrated it at White Sands Missile Range last March.

AFRL’s new Center for Electromagnetic Effects and Modeling will provide enhanced testing and evaluation capabilities for microwave systems. It includes an anechoic chamber for radiation testing of electronic systems, and a “forensics lab” for determining the effects of microwave weapons on circuit boards.

“Electromagnetic weapons attack the digital nervous systems of drones in different waveforms, causing them to wobble,” Wood said. “Then we took the drone apart and looked inside to determine how the waveform affected specific chips and electronics.”

The new facility brings AFRL teams together in one place to study these things.

AFRL’s work is creating great opportunities for local industry.

For example, Albuquerque engineering firm Verus Research won a new $19.5 million contract in October to assist with effectiveness testing and evaluation, building on a previously won contract to help track and confirm weapons performance superior. The company’s headcount has grown from 44 in 2017 to 113 now.

“Our contract caps booked for directed energy work are up 30% year-over-year,” Verus managing director Hank Andrews told the Wall Street Journal.

Similarly, engineering firm BlueHalo won an $80 million AFRL contract this year to build a “virtual shooting range” for real-time modeling and simulation of new directed-energy technologies. The company is now actively expanding its current 260 employees in Albuquerque.

“(We) are currently hiring to fill approximately 70 additional positions with an average salary of $90,000,” BlueHalo spokeswoman Tiffany Sevieri told the Wall Street Journal.

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