Technological foundations laid for high-power microwave weapons effects for next-gen electromagnetic warfare

May 9, 2022
It's easier said than done to create deployable electromagnetic weapons that can kill enemy electronics; much research must happen first.

THE AEROSPACE AND DEFENSE COMMENTARY – One of the next frontiers of U.S. military weapons development involves electromagnetic warfare -- or the ability to destroy or disable enemy computers, guidance systems, communications, sensors, and other electronics using high-power microwaves.

This type of weapon could enable military commanders disable the enemy's ability to fight effectively, while limiting collateral damage from conventional bombs and missiles that kill civilians and disrupt civil infrastructure like transportation, water supplies, and medical care.

A group of experts impaneled by the Air Force last year reported that by 2060 -- within the next four decades -- that given the right technology investments, directed energy weapons such as high-power microwaves will be placed on manned and unmanned aircraft, as well as on satellites, that can track a target and then fire an energy pulse to damage or destroy it.

Despite the hype, it's easier said than done to create deployable high-power ray guns than can kill enemy computers and electronics; a lot has to happen before electromagnetic weapons can become reality.

Related: Air Force asks industry to model and simulate electromagnetic warfare effects that destroy electronics

Some of the necessary work to make it reality, however, is getting started. It stands to reason that before researchers develop weapons that threaten to fry enemy electronics, these researchers first must demonstrate conclusively that electromagnetic weapons will work as expected, with no unforeseen consequences.

Just last month, the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., issued a broad agency announcement for the High Power Electromagnetics (HPEM) Empirical Effects project, which seeks to perform vulnerability testing on several electronic systems to determine the effectiveness of potential high-power electromagnetic weapons.

This electromagnetic weapons effects project seeks to find a waveform for an effective electromagnetic weapon that is small size, weight, and power consumption (SWaP). This weapon is to help validate modeling tools and techniques.

This work will include capturing effects and waveform data, identifying new targets, developing surrogate electronic systems for testing, purchasing representative electronic subsystems, developing fault trees, building probability of effect curves for the electronic subsystems, and planning outdoor effects tests to characterize electromagnetic weapon effectiveness.

Related: The new era of high-power electromagnetic weapons

To a lesser degree, the HPEM Empirical Effects project will include research and tools that can help predict the effectiveness of HPEM waveforms by developing and testing of emerging technologies and state-of-the-art HPEM technologies to collect vulnerability data.

Earlier this year the Air Force Research Lab kicked off the High Power Electromagnetics (HPEM) Modeling and Effects project to model and simulate the effects of electromagnetic warfare in destroying or disabling enemy electronics, improvised explosive devices, unmanned aircraft, and similar systems.

This project seeks to characterize the effectiveness of potential HPEM weapons by developing tools and generating vulnerability data to feed those tools. The vulnerability data consists of the likelihood of destruction or disruption of enemy electronics when subjected to high-power electromagnetic energy. The project also investigates how to predict and model the fundamental mechanisms that cause these disruptions or failures.

Last July the research lab at Kirtland Air Force Base began the Advanced Electromagnetic Technology (AET) project to develop new HPEM weapons concepts, materials, components, and compact power topologies for future military programs, and to evaluate advances in prime power technologies to optimize size, weight, and power (SWaP) requirements for future HPEM weapon systems.

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

The five-year AET project revolves around six enabling technologies: repetitive pulsed power; charged particle beam interactions; compact low-duty-factor prime power HPEM material and plasma technology; HPEM fundamental research; and solid-state-HPEM.

Repetitive pulsed power seeks to advance compact pulsed-power technologies that enable compact, pulsed power systems suitable to drive high-power electromagnetic sources.

These enabling technologies include Marx banks, pulsed forming networks, pulse forming lines, linear transformer drivers, hybrid pulsed power topologies, nonlinear transmission lines, solid state switches, gas switches, capacitors, transformers, insulating dielectrics, varactors, resistors, magnetic and dielectric conducting and structural materials.

So it's clear that deployable electromagnetic weapons aren't here yet, but much of the foundational work necessary to bring these weapons to fruition already is being done in research projects that are in progress.

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