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Air Force puts Lockheed Martin laser weapon to the test

Burn, baby, burn, said the laser to the drones.

Lockheed Martin's Athena laser weapon
The Athena laser weapon at rest.
Lockheed Martin

It's laser versus drone in the latest round of testing for directed-energy weapons. And according to Lockheed Martin, the lasers won. The defense contractor said Thursday that, in recent testing with the US Air Force, its Athena system locked onto and shot down multiple small drones, of both the fixed-wing and rotary-lift variety.

Athena (short for "advanced test high energy asset") is a spectral beam combined fiber laser, which means it's likely several lower-powered lasers hooked together to create a single higher-powered beam. Lockheed Martin declined to specify Athena's energy level in these tests.

The military is worried about the threat posed by drones, not just flying individually but also in swarms that could overwhelm conventional air defenses.

"The engagement scenarios were challenging, resembling real threat environments, ranges and flight paths," Lockheed Martin said. The testing took place at Fort Sill, Oklahoma.

Athena follows on from Lockheed Martin's ADAM laser weapon prototype, which in 2013 proved it could destroy military-type rockets in flight. (The US Army did its own shootdown testing with a Boeing-built laser around the same time.) A year later, the ADAM system disabled a pair of small boats at short range.

Laser weapons don't blow things up the way explosives do. They work instead by burning through the outer layers of the target over a number of seconds, either to destabilize and weaken it so that it breaks apart or to damage guidance or other systems on the inside. Proponents of the futuristic weaponry say that it has the advantage of low-cost, "unlimited" power -- so long as there's a reliable source of electricity.

In 2017, Lockheed Martin demonstrated a combined beam fiber laser that fired a nearly 60-kilowatt beam. In 2015, its Athena system, tying together three 10KW lasers to form a 30KW beam, disabled a truck by burning through the engine manifold "in a matter of seconds."

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