The missile launched from the wing pylon of a B-52 heavy bomber and streaked over the desert of western Utah. At pre-set coordinates, a microwave emitter installed in the winged, jet-propelled cruise missile blasted a target building. But there was no big bang, no billowing clouds of dust and debris. Instead, the building was struck with disruptive, high-frequency microwaves.
The goal of the test on the morning of Oct. 16 was “to render … electronic and data systems useless,” according to Boeing, the lead contractor for the three-year, $40-million Counter-electronics High-powered Microwave Advanced Missile Project, or CHAMP, initiated in 2009.
While the program is led by Boeing the crucial technology comes from a small company called Ktech, which Raytheon bought in June last year. At the Paris Air Show, AOL Defense interviewed Raytheon executive Mike Booen about the company and its capabilities. Basically, Ktech’s microwave generators generate an EMP-like field which shuts down electronics.
This did not come out of nowhere. Work began roughly four years ago, an industry source said.
Engineers, researchers and test personnel from Boeing, Raytheon and the Air Force Research Laboratory observed the test flight from a conference room at nearby Hill Air Force Base. A television camera mounted in a room in the unoccupied target building showed rows of desktop computers, their screens on and programs running.
When CHAMP passed overhead and activated its Raytheon-built microwave emitter, the computers went dark — and, a moment later, so did the camera monitoring the test. “Cheers erupted in the conference room,” Boeing spokesman Randy Jackson wrote in a press release published Monday.
“This technology marks a new era in modern-day warfare,” Keith Coleman, the CHAMP program manager at Boeing Phantom Works, told Jackson. “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.”
CHAMP’s successful first full test marks the culmination of a four-year process of formulating requirements, soliciting bids, selecting contractors and managing technology development and testing. The Air Force’s original solicitation called for “a multi-shot and multi-target aerial platform that targets electronic systems.”
The microwave weapon’s development began shortly after Israel’s air strike on suspected Syrian nuclear facilities in late 2007. In that raid, Israel apparently used non-lethal electronic attacks to shut down Syrian air defenses — a move that could be a model for future surgical strikes. At an off-the-record symposium in Pennsylvania in August, experts from the military, industry and academia plotted ways that microwave and other energy weapons could disable enemy forces, ending conflicts before a lethal shot has been fired.
That’s still easier said than done. Work on microwave weapons dates back to the 1970s, according to Robert White from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research. Early efforts were “dominated by the pursuit for greater and greater power levels,” White wrote. Later, the Air Force and industry focused on controlling the microwave pulse, eventually making it possible to aim the beam.
In that way the Air Force “mov[ed] away from the ‘flamethrower’ mentality,” Edl Schamiloglu, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, said at an Air Force conference in July. Instead, the Air Force wanted something akin to an electronics-frying sniper rifle.
CHAMP’s precise appearance and capabilities remain a secret, but it’s apparent that the missile meets the Air Force’s requirement for multiple, controlled shots at multiple small targets. CHAMP reportedly flew for the first time in mid-May without fully activating its emitter. That test, which used the same software as the October test, confirmed that the missile could navigate a complex flight path, selectively turning on and off the microwave.
In the October test, the CHAMP hit seven separate target buildings, Boeing’s Jackson wrote.
It’s not clear if or when the Air Force might launch a full-scale acquisition of a CHAMP-style weapon. Boeing is optimistic. “We know this has some capabilities and some impact,” said James Dodd, vice president of Advanced Boeing Military Aircraft, a division of Phantom Works. “We’re really trying to engage the customer to see if there is a way we can actually get this fielded and implemented sooner than later.”