The US military is developing a weapon with microwave technology — yes, microwave — designed to stop countries like North Korea from launching missiles.
According to an NBC News report, the weapon — which is still under development — could be put on a cruise missile and shot at an enemy country from a B-52 bomber. It’s designed to use microwaves to target enemy military facilities and destroy electronic systems, like computers, that control their missiles. The weapon itself wouldn’t damage the buildings or cause casualties.
Air Force developers have been working with Boeing on the system since 2009. They’re hoping to receive up to $200 million for more prototyping and testing in the latest defense bill.
There’s just one problem. It’s not clear that the weapon is entirely ready for use — and it’s not clear that it would be any more effective than the powerful weapons the US already possesses.
“To say we'll chance it on an untested sci-fi capability rather than using known capabilities seems a bit odd,” Vipin Narang, a nuclear expert at MIT, told me. “If you're going to go, go, and use the best tool in your inventory to go get them.”
Here’s how the microwave weapon would actually work
The weapon, which has the gloriously military-style name of Counter-electronics High Power Microwave Advanced Missile Project, or CHAMP, isn’t quite ready for action, but it could be soon. Two unnamed Air Force officials told NBC that the weapon could be ready for use in just a few days.
The weapons system has already gone through some rigorous tests. In October 2012, it destroyed multiple electronic targets, according to Air Force officials. “Today, we made science fiction science fact,” Keith Coleman, Boeing’s manager for the program, said after the 2012 test.
"Think about when you put something in your microwave that has metal on it," Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told NBC News. "You know how badly that goes? Imagine directing those microwaves at someone's electronics."
What’s left now is to do further military testing and then, perhaps, putting the weapon into production — which requires more congressional funding.
But would the microwave weapon actually be useful in a war, as the Air Force claims?
It sounds cool, but it’s not clear this weapon is any better than what the US already has
The experts I spoke with aren’t sure.
If the US ever decides to strike North Korea, Pyongyang would certainly strike back against the US and its regional allies. So, experts tell me, the US should ensure it physically destroys North Korean military buildings that could help it conduct retaliatory strikes instead of merely trying to fry its electronics. “Kinetic” weapons — like bombs that cause physical damage — could be more effective in a fight.
And it’s important to remember that the only way to know if the microwave weapon could work against a North Korean target would be to, well, shoot it at a North Korean target. The weapon has been tested under near-ideal conditions; in case of actual warfare, the US would have to contend with extreme and in some cases unpredictable changes in temperature and air pressure.
As of now, the microwave weapon only has a range of 700 miles, which means planes have to get close to an enemy’s airspace to launch it. That could make it easier for North Korea to shoot down an American warplane.
Still, the obvious advantage is that this weapon could take out electronics without harming people — if not harming people were one of the concerns.
So there may be some reason to use this weapon in the future, but there’s still a way to go before it’s fully cooked.