Counter-drone technology research and operation efforts are helping to prepare for the potential threat of drone swarms. (Lockheed Martin concept).

Drone vs. Drone.

It’s the high-tech equivalent of High Noon, the classic western film.

It was bound to happen, and … it’s going to happen. But not with Colt .45 handguns.

We’re talking electronic warfare, and brute force. Frying electronics with powerful microwaves.

To fight the growing danger of hostile drones, Lockheed Martin is offering MORFIUS, a drone armed with a High-Powered Microwave (HPM) to zap UAV swarms out of the sky, Breaking Defense reported.

MORFIUS is a reusable drone that can fit inside a six-inch diameter launch tube and weighs less than 30 pounds, light and versatile enough to attach to ground stations, ground vehicles, or aircraft.

Presented as part of the AUSA’s Global Force Next conference, the company outlined why, exactly, it sees microwave weapons as a future-proof answer to a rapidly evolving threat.

“We’re focused on how we address the counter-UAS swarm threat,” said Brain Dunn, of Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control.

Lockheed Martin really believes, he continued, “that an airborne delivered HPM effect really has an opportunity to make a big difference against the counter-UAS swarm flight that we’re going to be facing in the future.”

Working as part of a layered approach to counter-drone defense, MORFIUS units will be launched at hostile drones, or drone swarms, and then disable them in close proximity, with potentially a gigawatt of microwave power — or, as Lockheed put it, a million times the power of a standard 1,000-watt microwave oven.

Lockheed Martin engineers are collaborating with customers and academia to research, develop and implement the technology that will detect and defeat swarms. Credit: Lockheed Martin.

Asked about the feasibility of a small flying machine carrying enough battery for such a burst, Lockheed refused to get into specifics, instead simply saying that the power comparison was favorable to ground systems, Breaking Defense reported.

This is possible because MORFIUS can fly close to its targets and blast them with microwaves at close range – unlike ground-based systems, whose microwave emissions lose energy as they cross longer distances.

Crucial to the promise of MORFIUS is its ability to zap many drones at once in mid-air, far from the friendly vehicles, buildings, or people actively being defended.

“You have to engage the target before it gets to its ordnance release line, if it’s a kinetic effect, or if it’s an electronic attack, or defeat it before it can employ its ISR (Intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance) capabilities,” said Dunn.

Part of what is driving the counter-drone arms race is the tremendous growth in capability among cheaper uncrewed flying vehicles in use by both civilian and military fields, Breaking Defense reported.

“Terrorists and other militants can operate small, inexpensive drones loaded with weapons to threaten U.S. and allied forces on the ground,” said Daniel Miller, chief engineer for High Energy Laser Integration at Lockheed Martin Skunk Works.

Operators will be able to detect, track and identify drone threats using a communications and battle management system before calling upon the laser weapon system to defeat the threat. Credit: Lockheed Martin.

“Because of their size, these drones are difficult to see, hard to catch on radar, and hard to shoot at with conventional weapons, particularly in swarms.”

To eliminate drone threats, Lockheed relies on three steps:

Detect:  First, a radar like the Q-53 system would detect the threat and communicate that data through a battle management system, which would trigger a “kill chain” to begin its execution.

Identify:  As part of the kill chain, operators would monitor the progress of the targets, and identify whether they are friendly or unfriendly.

Defeat:  To defeat the threats designated as “unfriendly,” troops would activate the laser weapon system, or choose to use a cyber system like ICARUS, to take down the threat.

Lockheed Martin

Becca Schwartz, who leads strategy for Lockheed Martin Counter-UAS, pointed to, among other things, the spectacular displays of drone swarms in the Olympics as an example of just how much commercial tech can offer for potential terrorist or military swarming.

“Accessibility to the hobbyist means that it’s accessible to the adversary,” said Schwartz.

The widespread availability of cheap and capable drones means that they are available to unconventional adversaries as much as near-peer competitors.

In addition to laser weapon systems, a team of engineers has developed a cyber solution to defeat small drone threats, led by Mike Panczenko, director of engineering for Lockheed Martin’s Cyber Solutions business.

The fiber lasers that comprise the 30-kilowatt ALADIN laser are under production at Lockheed Martin’s Bothell, Washington, facility. The modular laser design allows the laser’s power to adapt based on the needs of a specific mission and threat. Credit: Lockheed Martin.

Built from internal investments, the ICARUS system can identify and intercept commercially available drones.

Its multi-spectral sensor system detects and characterizes incoming drones within seconds, before using cyber electromagnetic activity to disable it or allowing the operator to take control of the drone and move it to a safe area.

“ICARUS is part of the full-spectrum cybersecurity environment by acting in a more offensive capacity,” said Panczenko. “The idea is to counter the drone before it becomes a threat to our warfighters and citizens.”