Electromagnetic warfare emerging to destroy or disable critical enemy electronics without collateral damage

Sept. 28, 2021
This approach uses aimed electrical energy to destroy or disable critical enemy electronics for navigation, computing, communications, and sensors.

THE MIL & AERO BLOG – Electromagnetic warfare emerging for high-energy electrical weapons that damage or destroy enemy electronics.

There's an emerging brand of waging war that uses electrical energy instead of bombs and bullets to attack an enemy's means and will to continue the fight -- electromagnetic warfare.

This approach uses aimed electrical and magnetic energy to destroy or disable critical enemy electronics for navigation and guidance, computing, communications, displays, timing, sensors, and many other military applications.

What's coming to be known as electromagnetic warfare has been classified under names like high-power electromagnetics (HPEM), directed-energy weapons, microwave weapons, and electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapons.

Related: Air Force researchers ask industry to develop space electromagnetic warfare operating location

Typically electromagnetic warfare involves the use of, and defense against, microwave and EMP weapons to destroy enemy electronics. It does not involve electronic warfare (EW), optical warfare, laser weapons, or cyber warfare. It's often lumped into directed-energy weapons, but that description misses the mark because it includes laser weapons and laser targeting, which can confuse the issue.

Future uses of electromagnetic warfare will be on land, in the air, in space, and perhaps even under the sea. It involves the same kind of energy as static electricity, which can give a stinging shock in dry weather, but it's controlled and measured, and typically doesn't leave explosive destruction and collateral damage behind like bombs, missiles, and bullets do.

Electromagnetic warfare differs from electronic warfare in that it seeks to destroy or damage electronics, rather than jam, spoof, or eavesdrop on electronic signals for communications or radar sensors. It differs from laser weapons in that electromagnetic weapons use electronic energy rather than optical energy.

Yet high-power electromagnetics, microwave weapons, EMP weapons, and the electrical and RF portions of directed-energy weapons definitely fall under the electromagnetic warfare umbrella. As such, we're going to be hearing about electromagnetic warfare much more often in the future as these technologies are developed, mature, and are deployed into the field.

Related: The new era of high-power electromagnetic weapons

It's not as though electromagnetic warfare is a new discipline. Probably the oldest and best-known electromagnetic weapon is lightning. It's quick, and does a great job of frying electronics. Unfortunately it's all-but-impossible to control and aim, and can cause widespread collateral damage. There's still no practical implementation of a lightning weapon.

Still, researchers in the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) are working on electromagnetic weapons that might be the next-best-thing to controlled lightning.

In 2005, for example, U.S. Air Force researchers awarded a $7.5 million contract to the Raytheon Technologies Corp. Missiles & Defense segment in Tucson, Ariz., to design a portable Active Denial System, a type of nonlethal, directed-energy weapon that focuses millimeter waves on the skin of a suspicious person. The beam causes agonizing pain, but does no lasting damage, they say.

In 2004 Raytheon built a mobile Active Denial System onto a Humvee. That version also fit on a flatbed truck or into a C-130 turboprop aircraft.

Related: Microwave energy weapon contract awarded to Lockheed Martin

Raytheon was back in the news in 2017 when the Air Force Research Laboratory at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., awarded the company a $15 million contract to determine the feasibility of using electronics-killing EMP weapons aboard combat aircraft.

That same year Air Force researchers announced a $2.3 million contract to Verus Research in Albuquerque, N.M., to find ways of integrating future electronics-killing HPEM technologies onto military weapons platforms.

Both contracts sought technologies that would emit a short burst of EMP -- or an electromagnetic disturbance -- that would damage or destroy targeted electronic systems such as radar, communications, power grids, land vehicles, and aircraft. In fact, the effects of an HPEM would be similar to those of a lightning strike by disabling or destroying any kind of unshielded modern electronics, ranging from computers, to electric generators, to small appliances.

Related: Lockheed Martin to equip the F-35A combat jet with AARGM-ER anti-radar electronic warfare (EW) missile

Last September the United Kingdom Ministry of Defence awarded a contract to develop a high-power RF weapon for the back of a military truck as part of the British Novel Weapons Programme.

Also in September the Air Force Space Systems Command at Los Angeles Air Force Base, Calif., issued a sources-sought notice (SP-2020-05) for the Space Electromagnetic Warfare Operating Location (SEWOL) project to develop a system to plan and carry out space electromagnetic warfare operations. The SEWOL is to be the Air Force's consolidated operating location for the planning, tasking, and execution of space electromagnetic warfare operations.

It won't be long until electromagnetic warfare comes into common usage to describe a new class of military weapons and doctrine.

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