This week, the US military confirmed a rumor that has been around for quite a few years: that they have a microwave weapon designed to knock out the electronic systems of guided missiles.
The weapons are known as CHAMPS, and have a range of some 700 miles. They are delivered by B-52 bombers, and use a pulse of microwave energy to take out electronic devices. It is not known how close to an enemy command center the device has to get to be effective, or how extensively the weapon has been used.
The US military claims that the weapons have been used in both Iraq and Afghanistan, but the recent admission appears to have been made in relation to North Korea. As the war of words between Trump and the DPRK continues to ratchet upward, it seems that the military is seeking to reassure the populace that the US possesses an effective anti-missile defence.
“These high-powered microwave signals are very effective at disrupting and possibly disabling electronic circuits,” Mary Lou Robinson, chief of weapons development at the Air Force Research Laboratory in Albuquerque, told NBC News.
Directed Energy Weapons
There has long been talk of directed energy weapons revolutionizing warfare. Lasers, whether using visible light or other frequencies, have been a staple of science fiction for almost a century now.
The problem has always been one of energy storage. High explosives contain a huge amount of destructive power in a small space, and even the best batteries in the world cannot match them. It remains unclear exactly how CHAMPS works, but reading the scanty descriptions given by the US military seems to suggest that it uses some form of explosive to yield large quantities of microwave radiation.
It is probably, therefore, more of a conventional weapon than the US military wants us to believe.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, of course. Many of the weapons that US armed forces use are very conventional, and some are pretty old. The standard issue rifle is a direct descendant of the M16, and the pistols issued to soldiers – today, military-issue Glock 17s or 19s – are based on a design that is some 40 years old.
These designs work, and are relatively cheap for the military to procure. While research into microwave weapons should undoubtedly continue, therefore, we musn’t lose sight of tried and tested methods which don’t cost hundreds of millions of dollars in development costs.
Microwave weapons, and directed energy weapons more generally, definitely fit into that bracket.
The Real Battleground
A second issue with spending huge amounts on developing new ballistic weapons, such as CHAMPS, is that it can distract from where the real battle with North Korea is actually happening: cyber space.
The DPRK is keen to focus the world’s attention on its increasingly frequent tests of ballistic missiles. This certainly makes for good TV, but it also helps the hide the fact that the country has developed huge expertise in cyber warfare techniques, and is not reticent to use them.
As reported earlier this year, North Korea is already making hundreds of millions of dollars a year by launching cyber attacks on major financial organizations around the world. The foreign funds that these activities provide are incredibly important for a country laboring under a crippling array of sanctions.
So far, the most striking response to these attacks have been from individuals, and nor governments. One reason why so many people are turning to blockchain, for instance, is its superior protection to cyber theft, when compared to more traditional banking.
So far, however, the US government has not risen to the threat. There is still no clarity as to how the US will respond to the next inevitable cyber attack, whether this originates in the DPRK or from elsewhere.
That’s why this week’s announcement is so frustrating. It’s nice to hear, or course, that US microwave weapons are “possibly” capable of knocking out missile launch centers, but what about designing systems that can do this remotely?
Though the intention of this week’s announcement was meant to re-assure us that we are capable of dealing with North Korea, it does no such thing. Weapons like CHAMPS, while useful in a limited role, are not what we should be focusing one. If there is a war coming, it will largely be fought online, and we need to prepare for that now.