An advanced concept, pioneered by BAE Systems’ researchers, uses light to multiply the speed and power at which HPM (High Power Microwave) pulses–powerful enough to destroy enemy electronics–can be produced without the need for explosives or huge electrical generators. This is part of revolutionary breakthrough in electronics warfare capability that will occur over the next 2-5 years and beyond. Think more controllable versions of the magnetic pulse generators in the Matrix movies.
Researchers predict leaps of 10-100 times in power output within two years. That advance could push the beam-weapon technology far beyond the 1-10-gigawatt limit of current tactical-size HPM devices. Long-standing industry estimates are that it would require a 100-gigawatt pulse for a few nanoseconds to disable a cruise missile at a useful range.
BAE Systems is not alone in the chase. Northrop Grumman and Raytheon are also building distributed array radars that can produce air-to-air and surface-to-air HPM weapons effects, contend longtime Pentagon radar specialists. In particular, the F-22, F-35, F/A-18E/F and newest F-15 radars are designed to accept modifications that would focus their beams to produce HPM energy spikes powerful enough to disable cruise, anti-aircraft, air-to-air and emitter-seeking missiles. Germany’s Diehl is developing suitcase-size HPM devices that could be placed surreptitiously in a target building to damage electronics such as computers.
In addition, the U.S. military is giving classified briefings on the threat of HPM weapon technologies being developed in China and Russia. The Russians are believed to be developing radio-frequency microwave weapons for air defense, and the Chinese are developing HPM and electromagnetic pulse weapons for information warfare.
However, BAE Systems researchers claim they have made a singular leap in HPM weapons technology by combining the use of lasers and radar-like microwaves. Furthermore, the technology is scalable through the use of 4-in.-square arrays, each an integrated structure of dielectrics and electrical conductors. One hundred of them distributed over a square meter, for example, can generate up to 10 gigawatts of power, says Robert D’Amico, BAE Systems’ director of advanced programs.
HPM technology can be used to detect and detonate improvised explosive devices, find suicide bombers or hidden explosives, and attacking shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles. The weapons can rob a foe of communications, power and mobility–while largely eliminating collateral damage to people and structures–which is a high priority for the U.S. military.
“You could put a [sensor] system on a fighter-size aircraft that could generate enough power, with a 1-ft. resolution, to see stealthy objects at 100 mi.” D’Amico says. “You can defeat stealth with enough power. If stealth takes the signature [of an aircraft or missile] down a factor of 10, you have to increase the [sensor’s] power by a factor of 10.” Most current fighter-size radars have less than a megawatt of peak power. Detecting stealth would require tens of gigawatts, which is now impossible in fighter-size packages.
The HPM weapons could be scaled up to shipboard size–perhaps 100 sq. meters–to produce terawatt-size energy pulses. That’s theoretically a large enough energy spike to stop another ship.
Researchers say the antennas, photoconductive switches and transformer blocks can be built into conformal skins for unmanned combat aircraft as well. Unmanned designs are favored initially because of the vagaries in distribution of HPM side lobes, the effects of HPM on humans, and the disturbances that energy spikes can create in fly-by-wire flight control systems.
Brian Wang is a Futurist Thought Leader and a popular Science blogger with 1 million readers per month. His blog Nextbigfuture.com is ranked #1 Science News Blog. It covers many disruptive technology and trends including Space, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Medicine, Anti-aging Biotechnology, and Nanotechnology.
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