WASHINGTON — In Norse mythology, the thunder god Thor used his legendary hammer Mjölnir to slay giants. In the Avengers films, it was used by superheroes to fight the villainous Thanos.
But the Air Force is now working on its own Mjölnir, which it hopes will prove to be a breakthrough drone killer.
The Air Force Research Laboratory said on Friday it had awarded a $26 million contract to Leidos to build a prototype system of that name that will zap small unmanned aerial systems with high power microwave and disable them.
In its statement, the AFRL said Mjölnir will be built on technology demonstrated in recent years by its Tactical High-Power Operational Responder, or THOR, program.
“Because THOR has been so successful, we wanted to keep the name of the new system in the family,” said Adrian Lucero, THOR program manager for AFRL’s Directed Energy Branch at Kirtland Air Force Base. in New Mexico.
Work on the project will begin at Leidos’ facilities in Albuquerque this spring, and the AFRL wants a prototype to be delivered in 2023.
As small drones become cheaper, more efficient, and accessible even to ordinary consumers, the potential threat they could pose to military bases has increased. They can be used not only to snoop or spy on military installations, but also to attack them if they are loaded with explosives.
A year ago, the head of U.S. Central Command, Marine Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, called the spread of small, inexpensive, ready-to-use drones “the most concerning tactical development” since the emergence of the improvised explosive device during the war in Iraq.
“I think we are seeing the emergence of a new component of warfare,” McKenzie said at the time.
The Department of Defense became so concerned that it created a Joint Office Against Small Unmanned Aircraft, led by the military, to determine how to thwart the threat of small drones.
The military also plans to spend more than $50 million this year developing technological methods to eliminate small drones, including systems like THOR.
THOR uses intense burst radio waves to disable small drones and is able to take out multiple targets at once. After a successful demonstration in Kirtland last year, the Army said it plans to test THOR in the field, possibly as early as 2024, to protect its bases from small drones.
Mjölnir will use technology from THOR, with improvements that the AFRL says will make it more capable and reliable.
Lucero said AFRL is transferring its technology to Leidos so it can build more systems in the future.
“Mjölnir will focus on creating a blueprint for all future [counter-unmanned aerial system high-power microwave] systems with improved range and technology to detect and track drones,” Lucero said.
AFRL spent $15 million to develop THOR with Verus Research, an Albuquerque-based engineering firm, BAE Systems and Leidos.
The military has also tried shooting down small drones with bullets or using nets to trap them. But an AFRL program official told the Albuquerque Journal last year that THOR’s radio bursts had a wider engagement range, were quieter and instantaneous than the physical methods used to shoot down drones.
Stephen Losey is Defense News’ air warfare reporter. He previously reported for Military.com, covering the Pentagon, special ops and air warfare. Prior to that, he covered Air Force leadership, personnel, and operations for Air Force Times.