The new era of high-power electromagnetic weapons

Nov. 19, 2019
EMP weapons, streams of microwaves, electromagnetic railguns, and high-power lasers offer new ways to bring down swarming drones, sink ships without explosives, and disperse formations of soldiers.

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.

EMP weapons

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.

Electromagnetic weapons

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.”

With China and Russia reportedly moving ahead rapidly with their own high-power electromagnetic weapon programs, fast-tracked U.S. efforts show the importance the military is assigning not only to their development, but also to the rapid fielding of these new technologies.

“The time now is to get directed-energy weapons to the battlefield,” says Lt. Gen. L. Neil Thurgood, the Army’s director of hypersonics, directed energy, space and rapid acquisition. “The Army recognizes the need for directed-energy lasers as part of the Army’s modernization plan. This is no longer a research effort or a demonstration effort; it is a strategic combat capability and we are on the right path to get it in soldiers’ hands.”

Changes in tactics

Introducing high-power electromagnetic weapons into the weapons mix across all warfighting domains is more than just a matter of technology, production, and deployment, however. It also will force major changes in tactics.

For example, China has developed a cruise missile that can be hidden inside a shipping container on a cargo ship. Such a missile, armed with an EMP warhead, could launch from any port to destroy vital military sites, manufacturing facilities, and critical infrastructure like the domestic power grid. Erecting electromagnetic defensive systems is considered the best short-term approach.

That also applies to major changes in defending the nation’s military assets overseas and afloat. A series of wargames last September and November were designed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to evaluate how the services interact, coordinate, and frame new battle strategies in the event of combat with Russia or China.

“What we don’t have is a concept that accurately and with rigor describes how the services will fight against a peer adversary,” says Lt. Gen. Eric Wesley, deputy commanding general of U.S. Army Futures Command and director of the Futures and Concepts Center. “The reason we say we need a joint concept more than ever is because the tempo of warfare, and the complexity of all the domains.

Because all of these domains] are controlled at different echelons or by different services, military forces must integrate all domains quickly to take advantage of opportunities on a very lethal, hyperactive battlefield.

The Army also is prototyping a 100-kilowatt-class High Energy Tactical Vehicle Demonstrator (HEL-TVD) laser system for the new Family of Medium Tactical Vehicles. It also will serve as a research component for other directed energy weapons across the military services.

“Under the new directed energy strategy, the Army is leveraging progress made in that effort in order to merge the HEL-TVD with similar technologies in development by the Navy and the Office of the Secretary of Defense,” Army officials said in a statement. This will enable the services eventually to design laser weapons as strong as 250 to 300 kilowatts to protect sites from rockets, artillery, mortars, and UAVs.

In October 2018, the Navy added the electromagnetic spectrum to its five existing warfighting domains — land, air, sea, space and cyber. The new policy calls for an “enterprise approach to all activities necessary [for the Navy’s] roles and responsibilities for developing, implementing, managing and evaluating electromagnetic battlespace programs, policies, procedures and control to enable Department of the Navy superiority.”

Laser weapons

Navy leaders this year will deploy prototypes of two of three NLFoS weapons systems under development: the Solid State Laser-Technology Maturation (SSL-TM) system, evolving toward a 150-kilowatt amphibious ship-based weapon; and the Optical Dazzling Interdictor-Navy (ODIN) for destroyers. A third, the High Energy Laser and Integrated Optical-dazzler and Surveillance (HELIOS) system, a 60-kilowatt weapon being developed by Lockheed Martin, is scheduled for sea trials aboard an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer in 2021.

The deployments are to do more than just test the systems; they will give sailors an opportunity to do what warfighters always do with new equipment — figure out ways to use it the engineers never imagined.

Another Navy program not currently part of NLFoS is the High Energy Laser Counter-Anti-Ship Cruise Missile Program (HELCAP). Lasers would be ineffective against incoming cruise missiles because the nose of the missile is designed to withstand significant high-speed heat. As part of an area defense effort, HELCAP would track a cruise missile and fire at its vulnerable side as it passes, burning a hole that would destroy the missile’s control systems.

In the Naval Power and Energy Systems Technology Development Roadmap (NPES TDR), released last June, officials of the Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) outlined their strategy to meet the power requirements of future weapons and sensor systems ranging from kinetic guns and missiles to high-power pulsed systems. Those include advances in lasers, unpredictable electronic warfare (EW) systems, radiated energy systems like missile-defense radar, and advances in kinetic energy weapons like electromagnetic railguns.

Since the end of World War II, the U.S. has been the world’s dominant superpower. This largely has been due to a dominance in technologies other nations were incapable of matching, because of development cost or lack of engineering expertise.

While high-power electromagnetic weapons also rely on cutting-edge technologies and superior engineering, they are far less expensive to produce and field than nuclear weapons, aircraft carriers, or fifth-generation jet fighters.

Combined with increasingly cheap but capable UAVs, they offer many nations a new avenue to becoming a military near-peer with the U.S., especially if the leading adversarial developers of such weapons — Russia and China — share that technology with others, such as Iran and North Korea.

If an enemy can destroy the unmatched high-tech weapons of the U.S. with a portable, relatively easily hidden high-power electromagnetic weapon, that enemy doesn’t need to spend billions of dollars in a fruitless attempt to match non-electromagnetic U.S. power. With a new emphasis on the rapid development and deployment of offensive and defensive high-power electromagnetic weapons, the U.S. is in a race to counter that possibility before it is employed.

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