AFRL deploys Raytheon's HELWS anti-drone weapon overseas for operator training

By Sara Sirota / February 17, 2021 at 2:19 PM

The Air Force has deployed Raytheon's High-Energy Laser Weapon System 2 -- a system designed to counter drone threats -- to an unidentified combatant command base abroad for operator training and an initial performance evaluation, the service announced in a press release today.

The assessment occurred in early September and included personnel from the Air Force Research Laboratory, 704th Test Group, Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center, AFRL’s strategic development planning and experimentation office and Raytheon. Beforehand in July, the service conducted a weeklong test to ensure basic functionality and lethality.

“The first phase proved that [HELWS 2] was capable of integrating with a fielded radar and fielded command and control system, and it completed the kill chain by shooting down [unmanned aerial systems] at operationally relevant ranges,” Lt. Col. Jared Rupp, director of the Air Force’s directed energy combined test force (DE CTF), said in the release. “It was then successfully deployed and integrated overseas.”

“We educated base leadership of the capabilities and limitations of these weapons to enable them to make proper decisions, such as engagement authorities,” Rupp added. “We also assessed the performance of the system after overseas transport and setup and monitored the daily operation of the system to determine what factors impact operations the most and what parts of the system were most vulnerable to reliability problems.”

HELWS 2 includes several upgrades from an initial variant the Air Force had deployed in early 2020. The enhancements improve the weapon’s transportability in a range of operational environments and include a new beam director for more accurate targeting, as well as a power system for additional magazine depth, the notice states.

The Air Force is now preparing for another HELWS 2 evaluation that's slated to occur within the next six months. By this September, the COCOMs will decide whether they want to take ownership of the weapon or return it to the Air Force, Rupp said.

HELWS 2 is part of a broader experimentation campaign Rupp's team is overseeing to assess the operational utility of commercial off-the-shelf DE systems. In addition to the high-energy laser, the Air Force awarded Raytheon a contract in September 2019 to test its Phaser high-powered microwave against drone threats overseas, but the service has not revealed if that evaluation has occurred.