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USAF unveils roadmap for microwave weapons use

The US Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) has unveiled a technology roadmap for its cruise missile-based “CHAMP” high-power microwave (HPM) weapon, which successfully fried banks of computers at a test range in October 2012.

The organisation says it is working on an improved, second-generation “multi-shot, multi-target HPM cruise missile” that builds on the mature counter-electronics high-power microwave advanced missile project payload previously demonstrated.

Based on past comments by AFRL officials, this next iteration of the Boeing and Raytheon-built system will probably be carried on an extended-range Lockheed Martin AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM-ER).

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Boeing/US Air Force Research Laboratory

The laboratory is also eyeing an “HPM advanced missile” in the longer term with a more sophisticated CHAMP-like payload, and then eventual integration with a manned or unmanned aircraft.

“We’ve already demonstrated the military utility of a high-power microwave system at a sufficient technology maturity level to be fielded,” AFRL commander Maj Gen Tom Masiello said at a 28 July directed energy summit in Washington DC.

“Where we’re going next is improving a CHAMP-like payload to increase the overall effectiveness and maybe even the ability to steer it more precisely than the original CHAMP. Next would be looking at various other platforms other than the air-launched cruise missile. And finally, everybody recognises the utility of having a reusable platform, maybe a manned or unmanned aircraft.”

Masiello describes the demonstration in 2012 with a repurposed Boeing conventional air-launched cruise missile as very successful.

“It flew against two major targets, but was able to conduct several different runs,” he says. “That demonstrated the maturity level of a high-power microwave weapon sufficient to go into a programme of record at a sufficient risk level if the decision was made to go there.”

Exactly when the technology derived from CHAMP will transition to a programme of record is a point of contention in Washington.

Congress has been pushing the air force to make a deployable weapon available to operational military units, but there has been considerable “inertia”.

The USAF's Air Combat Command (ACC), which trains and equips combat forces, says it is still considering how the HMP weapon fits into its missions and war plans.

“In an unclassified format, you can’t say too much about that, other than we recognise the capabilities, but until we work it into our war plans, we are still trying to study how that weapon system would impact some of the threats we’re looking at,” says ACC vice-commander Maj Gen Jerry Harris. “Yes, we are looking at it, and we think the technology will make a viable weapon in the future. We’re trying to bridge that gap from just a technology to bringing it into production for the warfighter.”

Some lawmakers, though, think the air force is dragging its feet, since it has already been given extra funding and congressional direction to pursue both “near and far-term” counter-electronics capabilities.

Directed energy caucus co-chair congressman Jim Langevin says the military faces a constant conundrum where the laboratories are only interested in the science and the operational forces are slow to adopt new technologies.

“The scientists and researchers want to keep this stuff in the labs and research it to death in many cases, so we have to be constantly pushing the labs when it’s ready to make sure there’s a path forward,” he says. “[Unmanned air vehicles] when they first came online, there was a resistance within the traditional air force to adopt all these technologies, and now we realise they’re indispensable.”

Boeing, for its part, is keen to move the CHAMP technology forward. Phantom Works president Darryl Davis said in May that the focus now is on miniaturising the payload for possible integration with new cruise missiles and UAVs. The Long-Range Standoff cruise missile that the USAF plans to buy is one possible candidate.

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