WASHINGTON — In Norse mythology, the thunder god Thor used his legendary hammer Mjölnir to slay giants. In the “Avengers” films, it was wielded by superheroes to battle the evil Thanos.
But the U.S. Air Force is now working on its own Mjölnir, one it hopes will prove to be a revolutionary drone killer.
The Air Force Research Laboratory said Friday it has awarded a $26 million contract to Leidos to build a prototype system by that name that will zap small unmanned aerial systems with high-power microwaves and disable them.
In its release, AFRL said Mjölnir will be built on technology demonstrated in recent years by its Tactical High Power Operational Responder, or THOR, program.
“Because THOR was so successful, we wanted to keep the new system’s name in the family,” said Adrian Lucero, THOR program manager from AFRL’s directed energy directorate at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico.
Work on the project will begin at Leidos’ Albuquerque facilities this spring, and AFRL wants to have a prototype delivered in 2023.
As small drones become cheaper, more effective and available to everyday consumers, the potential threat they could pose to military bases increases. They can be used not only to snoop or spy on military installations, but also to attack them if loaded with explosives.
The head of U.S. Central Command, Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, a year ago called the spread of small, cheap, off-the-shelf drones the “most concerning tactical development” since the improvised explosive device emerged during the Iraq War.
“I think what we’re seeing is the emergence of a new component of warfare,” McKenzie said at the time.
The Defense Department has become so concerned it created a Joint Counter-Small Unmanned Aircraft Office, led by the Army, to identify how to thwart the threat of small drones.
The Army is also planning to spend more than $50 million this year to develop technological methods to neutralize small drones, including systems like THOR.
THOR uses radio waves in intense bursts to disable small drones and is capable of taking out multiple targets at once. After a successful demonstration at Kirtland last year, the Army said, it plans to field-test THOR, possibly as early as 2024, as a way to protect its bases from small drones.
Mjölnir will use THOR’s technology, with improvements AFRL said will make it more capable and reliable. Lucero said the lab is transitioning its technology to Leidos so the company can build multiple systems in the future.
“Mjölnir will focus on creating a detailed blueprint for all future [counter-unmanned aerial system high-power microwave] systems with enhanced range and technology for detecting and tracking” drones, Lucero said.
AFRL spent $15 million to develop THOR with BAE Systems, Leidos and Verus Research, an engineering firm based in Albuquerque.
The military has also tried to shoot down small drones with bullets or use nets to ensnare them. But an AFRL program manager told the Albuquerque Journal last year that THOR’s radio bursts have a wider engagement range, are silent and are instantaneous.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.