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Microwave Missiles: High-Energy Weapons in the Air Force

New research into high-power microwaves could make them a crucial tool of electronic warfare.

The U.S. Air Force's newest directed-energy weapon program, the Counter-Electronics High-Powered Microwave Advanced Missile Project (CHAMP), would create a weapon that fires powerful bursts of high-power microwaves (HPM), frying the electronics of multiple targets without harming people or other infrastructure.

CHAMP's microwaves could be delivered from pods on airplanes, unmanned aerial vehicles or even retrievable cruise missiles programmed to safely land near their points of origin, says Doug Beason, a member of the Air Force's Science Advisory Board who has worked on directed-energy weapons.

"You want to fly close to the target. You do not want to hit the target kinetically," Beason says.

Hurdles to a usable system include miniaturizing the antennas and the power supply.

According to Air Force documents, the winner of the $40 million CHAMP contract, expected to be chosen this year, would have five years to demonstrate a working device.

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Other USAF directed-energy efforts:

— High-Energy Research and Applications Program: The Air Force last year began the $75 million HERA program to research aerial and ground-based HPM weapons. Researchers will focus on zappers that can generate peak power in the multi-gigawatt range and devices emitting on narrow- and wide-band microwave loads.

— Active Electronically Scanned Array Radar: AESA radars are made to scan the horizon for threats. However, if radio energy is concentrated on one spot, the radar can scramble the electronics of targets. U.S. warplanes currently carry the AESA radar, but officials do not speak publicly about their electronic warfare capabilities.

— Active Denial System: The ADS system, mounted on a Humvee, focuses a high-power, 95-GHz microwave beam at a target using a planar array antenna. The microwave energy penetrates up to 0.5 mm into human skin, producing an intolerable heating sensation but, designers say, no permanent damage. The Navy is looking into a similar system for ships.

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