by JAMES DREW
The U.S. Air Force has been turning old cruise missiles into computer-destroying weapons of mass disruption.
It’s known as CHAMP, or the Counter-electronics High-powered Microwave Advanced Missile Project. Designed to conduct non-lethal electronic attacks on cities, the device can fly over densely populated areas and hit targets with powerful, precise shots of microwave energy.
The effect is comparable to the electromagnetic pulse from a high-altitude nuclear explosion, except smaller and targeted far more precisely. Which means you don’t have to blow stuff up.
But beyond highly-publicized demonstrations and a $38 million research program, the military has failed to prepare the technology for battle.
That’s despite its potential to wreak havoc on unfriendly war hubs such as air defense systems, communications towers and command-and-control posts that depend on computers.
Boeing and the Air Force Research Laboratory proved the concept during an operational test in 2012. The missile shot across the Utah desert and zapped multiple targets at different locations, shutting down rooms full of computers.
The program team showed the results in this 2012 video.
“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 subsystems,” Boeing explained in a 2012 press release. “CHAMP allows for selective, high-frequency radio wave strikes against numerous targets during a single mission.”
On March 25, AFRL’s directed energy office at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico stated that the test missile produced the intended results. The office added that there are no technological challenges standing in the way of CHAMP becoming a deployable weapon.
The Air Force could also deploy the device in different ways, depending on the particular mission. The CHAMP itself doesn’t have to be on board a missile — a drone or fighter jet could carry one, laboratory officials said.
The Air Force started the program in 2009. But six years later, there’s still no formal program to push the technology through to development and production.
Last year, lawmakers passed legislation compelling the flying branch to build the counter-electronics missile by 2016, and added $10 million in the government’s 2015 budget specifically to get the project started.
At two recent House Armed Services Committee hearings, Florida Rep. Richard Nugent challenged senior Air Force leaders on the service’s commitment to produce a CHAMP missile as required by law. The responses were uninspiring.
“Do we plan to produce this weapon by [fiscal year] 2016?” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said. “No, sir, we can’t get there from here.”
According to Welsh, the Air Force builds weapons and electronic warfare equipment in two separate “capability portfolios.” These two programs have had trouble coming together to produce an operational CHAMP system.
Instead of a deployable, high-power microwave missile, the United States will get a “cross-functional study” this summer. “This system has been tested and works,” Nugent said. “This is not a limitation on technology, authority or funding.”
According to Nugent, the Air Force has excess cruise missiles in its inventory due to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia. The flying branch must demilitarize these surplus missiles, but could re-purpose them into CHAMP weapons without violating the treaty.
According to one electronic warfare expert, who spoke on background, high-power microwave devices such as CHAMP make wonderful non-kinetic weapons because they destroy electronics … rather than temporarily jam them.
And they don’t kill civilians.
“In recent conflicts, some civilian infrastructure nodes have been targeted for degradation, but were not intended to be fully destroyed — because of unintended effects on civilian populations, collateral casualties, or wanting to preserve them for later rebuilding,” the source wrote.
“CHAMP makes a wonderful non-kinetic weapon that can create persistent, destructive effects, but with greater control over unintended or unwanted destruction.
“Jamming has to be applied continuously for the effects to occur. Once taken away, systems are operable again. With a high-power microwave, you are degrading/destroying that equipment and can move on to other targets. The increased miniaturization of electronics only enhances their vulnerability to high-power microwaves.”
The technology could give the U.S. the upper hand in a war against sophisticated foes. But it also has applications in a counter-terrorism campaign, where a conventional strike on an insurgent’s urban command post might kill bystanders.
The Pentagon knows exactly how devastating this type of weapon system would be on American forces. The government spends billions of dollars hardening its critical electronic systems against electromagnetic pulses.
The Air Force Research Laboratory has been working on non-lethal, non-nuclear electromagnetic pulse weapons for more than two decades, and the CHAMP demonstration in 2012 was a high water mark.
AFRL chief Maj. Gen. Thomas Masiello said at an Air Force Symposium last September that the technology for a steerable, counter-electronics weapon would be ready in 2016.
Masiello said the device could be part of a conventional cruise missile, such as the extended-range Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile, or even an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter by the end of the decade.
But weaponizing the technology requires a program office and sustained funding. Today, no such office exists. Instead, AFRL is looking at ways to improve CHAMP while senior decision makers dither.