For decades, intercontinental ballistic missiles tipped with a nuclear warhead were the most dangerous thing in the world, all but unbeatable, a threat to global survival.
That could be about to change.
The $700 billion dollar defense budget Congress sent the President to sign on Nov. 30 gave the defense department some far-fetched sounding research priorities, things like quantum information systems, biological engineering, and genetic enhancement.
But other sci-fi sounding weapons programs are reaching maturity, with successful tests giving way to predictable development schedules.
Defense Secretary James Mattis testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington on June 13, 2017. Congress gave the Defense Department $700 billion in its last budget as tensions on the Korean Peninsula mount. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Three of those technologies—high-power microwave systems, high-energy lasers, and hypersonic weapons—could have a major impact in the not-too-distant future.
Of the three, microwave missiles are the only ones that could be deployed now.
Microwave weapons have the power to destroy electronics but not hurt people, a capability the head of High Power Electromagnetics at the Air Force Research Laboratory, explained at a TedX presentation last year.
Division chief Mary Lou Robinson asked the audience to imagine microwaving water or food for one second. It would not affect the food, she said, just as it would not affect a person.
“Now…turn your cell phone on and put it in your microwave for one second.”
That quick blast would be enough to reset a phone and likely keep it from ever connecting to another wifi network again,
“That’s the power of microwaves against electronics,” she said.
Robinson’s team has tested a cruise missile outfitted with a high power microwave payload.
The missile is designed to fly over enemy installations and blast them with a high-powered microwave burst that shuts down electronics but leaves people alive.
If deployed, the weapon, known as the Counter-Electronics High Power Microwave Advanced Missile Project or CHAMP, could fry the electronics associated with a North Korean missile launch.
“The capability is real … and the technology can be available today,” Maj. Gen. Thomas Masiello, the former head of the Air Force Research Laboratory, said back in 2014.
There are challenges though.
Unlike a conventional bomb that announces its impact, microwaves are invisible, leaving field commanders uncertain if their objective was achieved.
A building bombed by ISIS in northern Aleppo, Syria on April 8, 2015. Microwaves give the military the chance to take out enemy technology without damaging buildings or hurting people. (Zein al-Rifai/AFP/Getty Images)
Another problem is the limited 700 mile range of the microwave missile which forces the plane that launches it to get dangerously close to the enemy.
That limited range was a problem for the military’s other directed-energy weapon program as well.
While CHAMP isn’t specifically aimed at ballistic missile defense, other programs are, and Congress wants rapid development.
Congress gave the Missile Defense Agency 90 days to deliver “a revised missile defense testing campaign plan that accelerates the development and deployment of new missile defense technologies.”
One of those technologies, “lasers mounted on small unmanned aerial vehicles” could provide the Missile Defence Agency with a new and crucial option for taking out nuclear missiles.
An X-47B military drone aboard USS George H.W. Bush on May 13, 2013 in the Atlantic Ocean. Congress wants high-powered laser drones capable of taking out ICBMs. (Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Timothy Walter/U.S. Navy via Getty Images)
The current challenge with taking out ICBMs is that they move extremely quickly, reaching speeds up to 11,000 mph, travelling from Moscow to New York in under 30 minutes minutes.
Current missile defenses take out ICBMs in the midcourse phase, as they reach the top of their arc in space and begin to descend on their targets.
By then, the missiles have already accelerated to a blistering speed and may have deployed their defensive measures like decoys and radar jamming. The best time to take them out has passed.
But a drone with a high-powered laser could lurk near enemy missile launch sites and shoot the missile earlier in its flight.
Previous efforts to create such a weapon proved unfeasible because earlier chemical laser technologies were too big and too dangerous.
“Chemical lasers produce a lot of power, but they take a 747-sized plane worth of hazardous chemicals to produce that power,” Maj. Masiello said in an Air Force communications report just before his retirement last year.
The Yal 1A Airborne Laser Aircraft conducts initial ball rotation tests at Western Test Range. The Boeing YAL-1 was a megawatt-class chemical laser mounted inside a modified Boeing 747-400F. The plane and laser proved too large and too costly to be effective in taking out ballistic missiles in their early boost phase but new solid-state lasers are smaller and could be mounted to unmanned drones. (MDA Photo)
That problem is solved by smaller solid state lasers that are now producing power that is “operationally relevant” for the Air Force, said the report.
“We have completely shifted our focus toward those types of laser systems, said Masiello.
The goal is to get a high-powered laser onto a fighter-sized aircraft. If the system is mounted to a drone, they can stay in the air up to 36 hours at high altitudes where the air is thinner and the laser can travel much further.
While lasers and microwaves have important defensive capabilities, hypersonic weapons have potent offensive potential.
The United States, Russia, and China are all developing hypersonic weapons.
A B-52B launch aircraft lifts off with NASA’s X-43A hypersonic research aircraft attached under it’s right wing on Nov. 16, 2004 at NASA Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base, California. The X-43A was one of the early hypersonic jets. (ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
Hypersonic missiles travel at a similar speed to an intercontinental ballistic missile but with some important advantages.
ICBMs launch up and into space, traveling in a predictable arc, like a football, as they bear down on to their target.
Conventional radar and satellite sensors can track them easily and provide enough warning to allow for a counterattack, thus ensuring mutual destruction, the foundation of the nuclear deterrent.
If the aggressor only has a few missiles, like North Korea, the warning gives the Missile Defense Agency time for its Ground-Based Midcourse Defense system to track the incoming ICBM and launch an intercept missile to take it out.
But hypersonic missiles travel like cruise missiles or fighter jets, flying in a line, within the atmosphere. They can change course and travel at low altitudes.
These attributes, and their incredible speed, make it hard for conventional radar and warning systems to track them, giving the the user an ability to strike an enemy on the other side of the world in an hour, with very little to no advanced warning.
An artist concept of the X-51 hypersonic test aircraft in flight. The X-51 reached Mach 5 (3800 mph) during a test flight in 2010. (U.S. Air Force)
Many military strategists believe they could change the face of modern warfare.
The weapons have been in development for decades, and as the budget notes “the requirements for technological breakthroughs in hypersonics have largely been established.”
That means the weapons have a clear development path and Congress wants it expedited, especially because China and Russia are aggressively pursuing hypersonic weapons. The budget notes those efforts are proceeding “at an alarming rate that threaten to outpace the United States.”
The weapons have huge implications but will have little impact on North Korea in the immediate future.
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