US EMP missile fries PCs and electronics in trial run of microwave weapon

Filed Under: Featured, Law & order

No shrapnel. No explosion. No buildings collapsing. No lives lost.

In what Boeing is calling "a new era in modern-day warfare," a missile has fired bursts of high-powered microwaves at buildings and fried their computers and electrical systems - without damage to the structures themselves.

The missile is known as CHAMP, or Counter-electronics High-powered Advanced Missile Project.

Its makers are looking to one day change modern warfare, by defeating electronic targets with little or no collateral damage, including loss of civilian life.

CHAMP - Counter-electronics High-powered Advanced Missile Project

The successful test was carried out at the Utah Test and Training Range on 16 October by Boeing’s Phantom Works team and the US Air Force Research Laboratory Directed Energy Directorate, along with Raytheon Ktech, which supplied the high-power microwave (HPM).

The hope is that such technology will in the future deliver a sucker-punch to enemy's systems before soldiers' boots hit the ground, said Keith Coleman, CHAMP program manager for Boeing Phantom Works, quoted in the company's writeup of the test:

"This technology marks a new era in modern-day warfare. … In the near future, this technology may be used to render an enemy's electronic and data systems useless even before the first troops or aircraft arrive."

As Boeing tells it, even the TV cameras set up to record the flight were knocked offline:

CHAMP approached its first target and fired a burst of High Power Microwaves at a two story building built on the test range. Inside rows of personal computers and electrical systems were turned on to gauge the effects of the powerful radio waves.

Seconds later the PC monitors went dark and cheers erupted in the conference room. CHAMP had successfully knocked out the computer and electrical systems in the target building. Even the television cameras set up to record the test were knocked off line without collateral damage.

Boeing put together this video showing a simulation of the missile attack and the resulting PC outage.

PC monitors went dark

The US might not be alone in pursuing such technology.

Recent conjecture has suggested that North Korea might also be developing electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapons or bombs that could take out power grids, military and civilian electronics.

Such bursts of intense, microwave-like energy were first discovered during above-ground nuclear testing.

Are such weapons actually non-lethal?

Such an attack could close businesses and federal agencies, disrupt hospital service and communication, potentially knock out medical devices such as insulin pumps and pacemakers, and knock offline life-sustaining, critical infrastructure, including communications, energy networks, and food and water distribution networks.

This is nothing compared with the damage wrought by a nuclear explosion, yet the damage could still be severe.

The Washington Times quoted Peter V. Pry, a former CIA official and current executive director of the Task Force on National and Homeland Security that advises Congress on EMP and other threats to the critical infrastructures, who said that a mere blackout was minor compared with a nuclear or natural EMP disaster:

"Rogue states or terrorists armed with a single nuclear weapon detonated at high-altitude over the United States could cause a protracted blackout nationwide, that would last months or years and might even be unrecoverable."

As well, CHAMP raises questions about security. Could these drone-like missiles be subject to the same computer glitches that have bedeviled US drones?

As the Washington Post reported on Thursday, since January 2011, US drones have:

  • Crashed into the ground in a residential area,
  • Come close to mid-air collisions,
  • Plunged into a Somalian refugee camp,
  • Flown perilously close to a fuel dump,
  • Mysteriously started up even with a turned-off ignition and closed fuel lines, and
  • Almost collided with a large passenger plane over Mogadishu.

According to the Post, Air Force statistics show that predator drones in particular are more accident-prone than manned aircraft. Such mishaps get less attention, given that they involve no passengers or pilots.

The Post relied on a transcript to quote an unnamed Air Force squadron commander who testified to an investigative board:

"After that whole starting-itself incident, we were fairly wary of the aircraft and watched it pretty closely. ... Right now, I still think the software is not good."

Boeing declined to answer my questions regarding the safety, security and nonlethal nature of these missiles.

A nonlethal weapon sounds too good to be true. Given the performance of US drones, one might be forgiven for assuming that it well might be.


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17 Responses to US EMP missile fries PCs and electronics in trial run of microwave weapon

  1. gmd · 722 days ago

    It is rumoured that the Russian military have already developed battlefield emp weapons http://www.truthistreason.net/russia-used-small-e...

    • militaryidiocy · 722 days ago

      I am fairly sure there were similar weapons to this mounted to manned aircraft from the 1960s onwards.

      • Dave · 722 days ago

        You are correct...it was called Carcinetron Jammer and would fry radar hundreds of miles away.

  2. 2072 · 722 days ago

    How could electronic devices be protected against this kind of high powered microwaves?

  3. Lisa Vaas · 722 days ago

    Shielding will protect devices, but if you're plugged in, you're more vulnerable. I read a great article but can't find it now... just search on "how to protect from emp" and you'll find information.

  4. James Coleman · 722 days ago

    Perhaps there's a now a market for EMP proof IPad sleeves//covers

  5. John · 722 days ago

    Did this really happen?
    A simulation video is not evidence, and why did they use such old equipment for a simulation.
    Were the drone's own electronics especially hardened against EMP or did it crash?
    If the drone can survive, will this simply result in new building standards to house sensitive equipment? Is this a new lucrative business opportunity?

  6. Keith · 722 days ago

    I have to agree with John, that equipment looks antiquted by any standards!

  7. Don · 722 days ago

    They probably used whatever computers were laying around that were unused and functional. Why spend a lot of money on high end equipment in the development stage. All that does is raise the cost unnecessarily, Save that for final testing.

    What I noticed is that the one Gateway computer in the center fires back up in the video. That shows that there is still a lot of testing and more development to be done before this becomes useful.

    • John · 722 days ago

      If this was a recording of the actual test, why did the camera recording it last at least long enough to record this? Pretty lucky it held on to give us a nice video!

      They also say that the champ missile was intentionally terminated at an undisclosed site on the test range? They did not have to mention it at all. It sounds like a euphemism for they lost control of it and it crashed somewhere.

  8. njorl · 722 days ago

    Seems clearly to discriminate against disabled people, and so will never be used inside the European Union.

    Wonder when and if terrorists (or just extortionists) will head in this direction. Probably, they don't even need the missile part. The pulse generator can be sneaked within range of the target.

  9. Corey Nachreiner · 722 days ago

    77 Days in September is a fun fiction novel on an EMP attack, for anyone interested....

  10. Randy · 721 days ago

    "After that whole starting-itself incident, we were fairly wary of the aircraft and watched it pretty closely. ... Right now, I still think the software is not good."
    Naw, it's just Skynet doing a test run.
    Actually, if the fuel lines were closed then it's not going to take off and destroy something. This makes the incident a mystery to investigate, not a clear and present danger. Iran has taken over a drone in the past and successfully landed the aircraft. Maybe they should check the drone's security logs for unauthorized commands from a hostile source.

  11. Harry · 721 days ago

    Is everyone overlooking the most serious implication about this weapon?
    It delivers microwave energy. To hell with all the electronics, all they'd have to do is ramp up the output level to make it lethal to anything living, and believe me they will take the development of the weapon in that direction.
    In fact they'll HAVE to, there are simply too many variables to ensuring a successful target "kill". As in the past defense contractors always opt to make a weapon more powerful than original design specs call for.
    Greater power = greater success/kill ratio.
    Being able to select output levels and directionality patterns and range will also increase the weapons flexibility.
    Have a pesky politician or do-goody local activist who's stirring up public dissent/unrest here at home? Don't worry we have a small compact version that can remove the offender quietly and with no suspicion. It will simply look like a motor vehicle accident or airplane crash attributable to mechanical failure or pilot fault.
    Also, what about the implications for portable even handheld versions?
    you could be simply assassinated on the street.( a fine high intensity beam of microwaves can cause a brain aneurism, one micro-second jolt and you'd collapse, dead before you hit the ground. The autopsy report would simply read " death by aneurism" case closed.)
    We are far closer than most realize to this level of technology, just take a closer look at all the "accidental" deaths that have occurred in past years when a politician or social activist becomes a problem to those in power.

  12. Decay · 718 days ago

    "No shrapnel. No explosion. No buildings collapsing. No lives lost"

    And cooks popcorn from 3 miles away!!

  13. Being able to select output levels and directionality patterns and range will also increase the weapons flexibility.

  14. We are far closer than most realize to this level of technology, just take a closer look at all the "accidental" deaths that have occurred in past years when a politician or social activist becomes a problem to those in power.

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About the author

I've been writing about technology, careers, science and health since 1995. I rose to the lofty heights of Executive Editor for eWEEK, popped out with the 2008 crash, joined the freelancer economy, and am still writing for my beloved peeps at places like Sophos's Naked Security, CIO Mag, ComputerWorld, PC Mag, IT Expert Voice, Software Quality Connection, Time, and the US and British editions of HP's Input/Output. I respond to cash and spicy sites, so don't be shy.