It has always been the stuff of science fiction. A country doing something the international community doesn’t like, or even a terrorist organization developing a lethal weapon heavily reliant on computing power and poses a threat to world peace.
But where weapon production happens to be located is in a densely populated area. The answer for avoiding significant civilian “collateral damage” has been envisioned as using a high-powered beam of some type fired from an aircraft that could destroy the offending arsenal yet limit the possibility of killing people or causing massive physical destruction of buildings.
This type of “surgical strike” – go a step closer when Boeing and the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) Directed Energy Directorate, Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M. – successfully conducted the first test of the $40-million Counter-electronics High-powered Microwave Advanced Missile Project (CHAMP) during a flight over the Utah Test and Training Range, monitored from Hill Air Force Base.
In military parlance, CHAMP is a non-kinetic alternative to traditional explosive weapons that use the energy of motion to defeat a target.
During the test, the CHAMP missile navigated a pre-programmed flight plan and emitted bursts of high-powered energy, effectively knocking out the target's data and electronic sub-systems. This was aimed at a single target but CHAMP actually will allow for selective high-frequency radio wave strikes against numerous targets during a single mission.
Keith Coleman, CHAMP program manager for Boeing Phantom Works, stated that, “This technology marks a new era in modern-day warfare…In the near future, this technology may be used to render an enemy's electronic and data systems useless even before the first troops or aircraft arrive."
Are we good to go?
So after four decades of research on how to build something that will disable electronics and not destroy people and buildings, it seems we are well on our way. Given the increased risks in the world, it would appear the timing could not be better. However, as with all things that seem too good to be true, or at least come under the category of “not so fast,” it turns out that CHAMP may be a good start down the right road, but it is still likely to be a long and winding one.
For those interested in a truly expert view on the subject, I recommend reading David Axe’s comprehensive piece on AOL Defense. Axe goes through the long history of attempts to develop what are generically called Electro-Magnetic Pulse (EMP) weapons, of which CHAMP is one.
He starts with the work of Charlie Martin, a hydrodynamicist at the British Atomic Weapons Establishment who in '60s needed more power for his research than were commercially available so he developed his own microwave-based source. Axe also highlights the limitations of weaponized High Power Microwaves (HPMs)—power that can be accumulated over a long period of time and then released very quickly in concentrated and lethal bursts.
The good news for the good guys is we got this high-power beam thing down, as the Boeing test proved. The winding road issues arise from the fact that the delivery of a potent strike is limited by the ability of the platform carrying the HPM to lug a powerful payload that can destroy what is necessary and the short-range of effectiveness of the burst.
Indeed as Axe notes, “Just how far CHAMP’s beam can reach at an acceptable degree of accuracy remains a secret.” He also notes not parenthetically that that microwave leakage could be an issue since you don’t want to knock the delivery system out of the air or any of its escorts.
There are other things that also make CHAMP mostly a good first effort. For instance, right now the delivery system is a cruise missile, and questions remain as to whether the technology can be tweaked so that things like drones could be used. More problematic is the fact that the tests were conducted on unshielded electronics.
The way the system works to destroy facilities is to exploit unprotected wiring and literally use it as a fuse. Think of this as why we have surge protectors, or should, so our computers are not fried when there are energy bursts on our power sources. Since HPM development is no secret, Axe and others in the defense industry assume that bad actors understand this and have likely been working on counter-measure to secure their critical assets.
What the future holds
In the first Star Wars, there was an episode where, against their directive, the members of the Starship Enterprise decide to help a previously peaceful and unarmed population fight off a malevolent group of other inhabitants of their plant by showing them how to make and use rudimentary weapons, thereby starting and arms race.
Axe quotes John Geis, director of Research at the Air Force Research Institute in Alabama, saying, “The point at which we believe these systems are a threat is the point at which we should be hardening up front." Geis estimates that will happen by the 2040s. But one wonders. History is filled with weapons being used before they were fully developed. As the article points out, such weapons are most effective against the most sophisticated computing capability because of circuit density.
Given the use of computers by those producing nuclear capabilities, it is easy to conjure a scenario where the use of even an imperfect HPM is “worth a shot.”
Boeing is scheduled for four more tests of CHAMP. It will be interesting to see how much more of its capabilities are revealed in the next few rounds.
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