While the demand for drones in commercial industries in the United States has grown exponentially, the US Armed Forces still comprise the largest sector of drone research and development. In 2019, the Navy requested a $9.93billion budget for drones, a $1billion increase from the previous year. Collaborating with some of the most prestigious aeronautical engineering firms, the Navy has been developing drones for both offensive and defensive use.
One example is the MQ-4C Triton developed for the Navy by Northrop Grumman. The MQ-4C is a high altitude, long endurance surveillance drone. The drone can remain airborne for up to 30 hours at altitudes of 55,000ft. It can reach speeds of 330knots while providing 360° views of over 2,700,000 sq mi of sea at a time. Another drone developed for the Navy by Northrop Grumman is the X-47B. Also capable of providing surveillance, this drone is more geared towards assisting manned fighter jets. The X-47B has a 2,400mile range, a maximum altitude of 42,000ft, and can reach speeds of Mach 0.9+. It has 2 weapons bays that can support an additional payload of 4,500lbs.
But the Navy isn’t only interested in developing drones, they are equally invested in the development of anti-drone technology. In February of 2022, the Navy held what they are calling a “trailblazing” demonstration of an anti-drone weapon developed by Lockheed Martin. Called the Layered Laser Defense (LLD), the weapon is an all electric, high energy laser capable of destroying inbound drones. The Navy has been experimenting with using lasers as weapons for years now, but until recently, they posed too great of a risk to those on board a ship for practical use. Lockheed Martin has taken all those safety concerns into consideration and delivered an awe inspiring device with the LLD.
Testing of the LLD took place at the U.S. Army’s High Energy Laser Systems Test Facility at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. In a release on the experiment Warren Duffie Jr., from the Office of Naval Research (ONR) said, “The ground-based laser system homed in on the red drone flying by, shooting a high-energy beam invisible to the naked eye. Suddenly, a fiery orange glow flared on the drone, smoke poured from its engine and a parachute opened as the craft tumbled downward, disabled by the laser beam.” LLD can be used to counterattack drones and enemy fast attack boats. It also has a high-resolution telescope for tracking threats and assessing battle damage.
The Navy is not yet ready to implement LLD as an anti-drone measure, explained Dr. Frank Peterkin, ONR’s directed energy portfolio manager. It is something that will need further testing before actuation. “Today, ONR coordinates closely with the Navy’s resourcing and acquisition communities to make sure we develop laser weapon technologies that make sense for the Navy’s requirements to defend the fleet and for operations in the rough maritime environment at sea,” Dr. Peterkin said. “It’s a challenging problem, but Navy leadership at all levels see potential for laser weapons to really make a difference. The next few years are going to be very exciting as we work with the Navy and joint partners to make the capability we just saw demonstrated by the LLD a reality for the naval warfighter.”