Key point: These are the weapons that the Pentagon hopes to actually deploy one day.
Military researchers around the world have been studying electromagnetics as a weapon for decades. The most successful application has been in lasers, with the development of small high-power systems. Experts also have made advances in microwave weapons and non-nuclear electromagnetic pulses (EMPs).
The U.S. military first began to research the use of lasers in combat in the late 1950s, but it was not until 1973 that the first U.S. tactical laser, the Mid-Infrared Advanced Chemical Laser (MIRACL) — a megawatt deuterium fluoride (DF) laser built by TRW — was tested against aerial targets. Five years later, the Air Force Weapons Laboratory at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., developed the first chemical oxygen iodine laser (COIL). A wide range of lasers have been developed since then, including solid-state lasers and free-electron lasers.
Electromagnetic weapons offer the advantage of scalability — from microwaves that heat the skin to make the target extremely uncomfortable but without injury, to high-power electromagnetic weapons that can destroy an enemy ballistic missile in flight.
The potential for such weapons, which could disable an enemy’s ability to fight without killing or wounding anyone — especially nearby civilians — has made their creation and deployment a major goal. Involved in this kind of research are the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the service labs — Air Force Research Lab (AFRL), Naval Research Lab (NRL), and Army Research Lab (ARL) — as well as the subject of considerable academic and corporate research, as the technology also has applications from medical to manufacturing.
EMPs can be naturally occurring from solar activity, or man-made, such as the EMP discharged by the explosion of a nuclear weapon. Both can have devastating effects on whatever area they envelop, from permanently disabling satellites in orbit to “frying” smartphones and other electronics with no possibility of repair.
What was still considered science fiction in the 20th Century is fast becoming military reality in the 21st. Some, such as handheld “rayguns” are still a while off, and will require major advances in the size and longevity of small form factor power systems. Still, what only a few years ago required a military 747 to carry now is being fitted on Stryker combat vehicles and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
In addition to destroying everything from a single smart phone to an entire continent’s critical infrastructure, permanently and without possibility of repair, high-power electromagnetic weapons offer a degree of stealth; their shrinking size and growing power make it difficult to identify the attacker. They are the perfect weapon for terrorists and saboteurs because they can strike silently, invisibly, and with total devastation.
President Donald Trump issued an executive order on “Coordinating National Resilience to Electromagnetic Pulses” in March 2019 after he recognized the growing threat EMPs pose to the nation.
“An electromagnetic pulse has the potential to disrupt, degrade, and damage technology and critical infrastructure systems,” the order stated. “Human-made or naturally occurring EMPs can affect large geographic areas, disrupting elements critical to the nation’s security and economic prosperity and could adversely affect global commerce and stability. The federal government must foster sustainable, efficient and cost-effective approaches to improving the nation’s resilience to the effects of EMPs.”
To that end, the president directed the National Security Council, Office of Science and Technology Policy, National Science and Technology Council, and the Secretaries of Defense, Commerce, and Homeland Security “to prepare for the effects of EMPs through targeted approaches that coordinate whole-of-government activities and encourage private-sector engagement.
“The federal government must provide warning of an impending EMP; protect against, respond to, and recover from the effects of an EMP through public and private engagement, planning, and investment; and prevent adversarial events through deterrence, defense, and nuclear non-proliferation efforts. To achieve these goals, the federal government shall engage in risk-informed planning, prioritize research and development (R&D) to address the needs of critical infrastructure stake holders, and, for adversarial threats, consult intelligence community assessments.
“To implement the actions directed in this order, the federal government shall promote collaboration and facilitate information sharing, including the sharing of threat and vulnerability assessments, among executive departments and agencies, the owners and operators of critical infrastructure and other relevant stake holders, as appropriate,: the president’s statement continues. “The federal government shall also provide incentives, as appropriate, to private-sector partners to encourage innovation that strengthens critical infrastructure against the effects of EMPs through the development and implementation of best practices, regulations and appropriate guidance.”
Scientists and military officers have produced numerous papers and speeches warning of the danger of EMPs since the dawn of the Atomic Age, but they were paid little heed, especially when none of their forecasts of potential havoc failed to materialize. Today anyone able to buy space on a cheap space launch vehicle, acquire fleets of commercial drones, or transport high-power electromagnetic weapons inside a van or small truck has the potential to launch an EMP attack; the question is no longer if, but when.
A similar evolution is in progress in the broader area of military operations at sea, on land, in the air, and in space. Focused high-power electromagnetic weapons soon will be able to disable an aircraft carrier battle group in seconds; destroy the electronics of land-based aircraft before they can launch their weapons; knock out vital communications, surveillance, weather, and command and control spacecraft without warning; and leave ground forces as blind and cutoff from each other as those during the American Revolution. Meanwhile, the enemy would retain cutting-edge military capabilities.
For the first time, the president’s executive order brings all high-power electromagnetic weapon developers and targets together to speed development of defenses and methods of recovery. While this new coordinated defensive effort aimed at natural and man-made electromagnetics is underway, the military also is accelerating its efforts to develop offensive and defensive electromagnetic technologies.
Each service has its own requirements for attack and defense, but the underlying technologies are the same. As a result, the service labs are sharing research data and developments at an unprecedented rate, as well as working closely with academic and commercial electromagnetic researchers and those in allied nations.
The Air Force Research Laboratory has been working on two non-lethal high-power electromagnetic weapons — the Active Denial System (ADS) and the Counter-electronics High Powered Microwave Advanced Missile Project (CHAMP).
Conceived by Air Force Research Laboratory’s Human Effectiveness Directorate, ADS is a low average power microwave system designed to penetrate the skin to a depth of 1/64 of an inch — about the thickness of three sheets of paper. It has been compared to feeling the blast of heat that comes from opening a hot oven; extensive testing has shown it to have no damaging effect on human skin or organs.
Used against ground forces or armed mobs, it would force them to disburse and retreat.
“The ADS is safe and doesn’t cause any harm, but it will get your attention,” says Mary Lou Robinson, high power electromagnetics division chief at the Air Force Research Laboratory at Kirtland Air Force Base. The program has been slowed, she adds, by public misunderstanding of the actual effects of ADS, which has been decried as “microwaving a human being.” The implied reference to a high average power microwave oven is similar to comparing a watergun to a 50-millimeter cannon.
CHAMP uses high-peak power microwaves lasting less than half the time it takes to blink — too brief to harm human beings but more than enough to disable or destroy electronic circuitry. A CHAMP system mounted in a UAV could fly over an enemy-held city and surgically destroy enemy command, control and communications systems — even hitting one building, skipping the next, then hitting a second — without damaging any critical civilian systems or harming anyone in the target area. Damage to enemy capabilities would be at least as great as a direct strike with a bomb, but with no structural or collateral damage.
On 26 July 2019 the Army announced the accelerated prototyping and fielding, by 2022, of four 50-kilowatt Multi-Mission High Energy Laser (MMHEL) Stryker-mounted weapons. Those would be 10 times more powerful than an artillery system soldiers have been testing in Germany since 2018. Part of the Army’s Maneuver-Short Range Air Defense (M-SHORAD), MMHEL would “protect maneuvering Brigade Combat Teams from unmanned aerial systems, rotary-wing aircraft and rockets, artillery and mortar (RAM).”
Also in July, Air Force Research Laboratory Kirtland demonstrated a Tactical High power microwave Operational Responder (THOR), built on an expedited 18-month schedule to get it into the hands of warfighters as quickly as possible. Able to be set up in three hours by two people, THOR should be able to take down several enemy UAVs simultaneously, with a handheld remote control rotating the microwave antennas to provide 360 degree coverage and a laptop computer providing the firing mechanism and overall systems control.
“It operates like a flashlight,” says THOR Program Manager Amber Anderson. “It spreads out when the operator hits the button and anything within that cone will be taken down. It engages in the blink of an eye. It’s built to negate swarms of drones; we want to drop many of them at one time without a single leaker getting through.”