With a cone pointed at the sky extending from an uncannily familiar barrel, the form factor of the microwave weapon was unmistakable.
The Time Integrated Gigawatt Electromagnetic Response, or TIGER, developed by Leidos, made its public debut at the 2019 meeting of the Association of the U.S. Army. Melding the stylistic choices of a 1950s sci-fi reel with color schemes and lived reality of the forever war, Leidos bills the TIGER as part of a balanced counterdrone diet.
High-powered microwaves, as a directed energy weapon, sit between the signals-interference of a jammer and the physical damage of lasers or bullets.
As the militaries of the world adjust to a range of new drone threats, finding the best way to stop them means choosing from a set of incomplete options. This can include everything from ramming interceptors, special drone detectors, and infantry-carried directional jamming antennas, to name a few. Drones, especially small and cheap drones, have spurred such a variety of responses because their small size, low cost and remotely directed nature complicate traditional anti-air defenses.
“This technology provides a non-kinetic defense against the urgent threat of small UASs attacking as a single unit or in swarms, and [it] can operate in concert with other countermeasures such as jamming, laser or kinetic systems,” said Billy Schaefer, directed energy business manager for Leidos.
While Schaefer highlighted how TIGER fits into a larger counterdrone picture, he also clarified the specific advantages the microwave weapon brings. Lasers have legal restrictions for use within the United States that might not apply to microwave weapons, though much of the domestic law around counter-drone systems remains to be written.
Microwaves are also an area-effect weapon, hitting multiple targets within range. Unlike lasers, which feature a longer range but also have to linger on a target until the beam does enough damage to incapacitate the drone, the microwave beam disrupts electronics as long as it is firing. Jammers can be hindered by short range, especially the infantry-portable jamming rifles, and will struggle against autonomous drones navigating without external control or GPS inputs.
Hence, the TIGER.
The prototype is built to be small and human-transportable, with the components breaking down to allow distribution over a team and to be set up in minutes. Leidos expects to test the prototype for the first time by the end of the year. The handle, barrel and tripod are all modeled after that of a .50 caliber machine gun, with the TIGER plugging into a battery box or another outlet. The goal is that, for the soldier using it, the device becomes as simple as point-and-shoot.
At present, TIGER is designed as an answer to Type 1 and Type 2 size drones, or roughly as large as hobbyist drones get. Schaefer said it’s possible that TIGER could work on larger drones, but will need testing first.
While the Air Force has not specifically asked for an infantry-portable microwave turret, Leidos officials said it was developed internally based on past needs expressed by the Air Force Research Laboratory. Future TIGERs could be designed with infantry in mind or mounted on vehicles. Right now, the company is focused on proving the defeat mechanism works in the .50 caliber-esque form.
Similarly, Leidos could incorporate targeting sensors for the TIGER in the future once its proven it works as a point-and-shoot device.
This is still the earliest of early stages for the device. That it exists at all speaks to the growing demand for newer counterdrone tools, one that can adapt to modern threats and possibly even swarms. It is not future-proof, but it certainly looks like a lost future of war, transported to a test range in the middle of a southwestern desert.
Kelsey Atherton blogs about military technology for C4ISRNET, Fifth Domain, Defense News, and Military Times. He previously wrote for Popular Science, and also created, solicited, and edited content for a group blog on political science fiction and international security.