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Intriguing news from the worlds of electropulse circuitry-zapper bombs and microwave raygun blasters, as US megacorp Boeing announces that it will build a "high power microwave (HPM) airborne demonstrator".

According to Boeing, the company's "Phantom Works" advanced projects facility will develop a special prototype aircraft to carry microwave energy weapon tech developed by the US Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL). This will be a tech demonstrator effort for AFRL's Counter-electronics High power microwave Advanced Missile Project (CHAMP).

"This demonstrator will provide a revolutionary, nonlethal system, allowing the military to neutralize specific targets while minimizing or eliminating collateral damage," said Keith Coleman of the Phantom Works.

"HPM is truly a game-changing technology and we are proud to play a role in its transition to the warfighter."

The idea here is that sufficiently high-powered blasts of microwaves could be used to temporarily disable - or permanently burn out - enemy electronic systems such as air-defence radars, communications nodes etc. Thus far, the only way to reliably generate such an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) has been to let off a nuclear bomb, but obviously this is usually seen as rather drastic. As a result, the US forces have been trying unsuccessfully to generate useful EMP/HPM effects without nukes for decades, giving rise to endless rumours, conspiracy theories and legends.

With Boeing speaking of a single demonstrator and a three-year programme of "ground and flight demonstrations", it seems likely that the aircraft here will be re-usable - it isn't meant to destroy itself in the process of generating its electronics-killing pulse, in the fashion of the long-watched-for-but-never-yet-seen electropulse bomb or grenade.

One might speculate, then, that the prime mover for the microwave weapon will be the aircraft's engines, feeding electricity into a pulsed-power system - to be provided by the Sandia National Laboratory, according to Boeing. Sandia has conducted experiments (pdf page 6) with a relatively compact (large-fridge sized) "folded Blumlein" pulsed-power system able to put out peaks of 70 gigawatts, which is into the range previously specified as desirable by the AFRL - in a context indicating "aerial and ground based HPM weapon systems ... close to an end product" by 2012, dovetailing nicely with Boeing's just-announced timeline.

Ordinary electrical supplies would offer a decent rate of fire for such a weapon. While the microwave blaster peaks at 70 GW, the pulses are extremely short - lasting just a nanosecond, according to authoritative sources (pdf page 5) - and total energy per pulse is just 10 kilojoules, the same amount of energy a decent steam iron uses in five seconds. Even allowing for losses, an aircraft capable of lifting the microwave gun and pulse system should be able to power it without too much bother.

In theory, that aircraft could be manned - but the Pentagon has historically been a bit twitchy about having people in the same airframe as EMP/HPM weapons, owing to the serious possibility of "self-kill". An electropulse weapon also means serious problems for communications, sensors and so on while working, meaning that on the whole it needs to be riding in something fairly autonomous, having little to do with the outside world. CHAMP is a "missile" project, after all.

If the new Boeing CHAMP demonstrator works usefully - and that's a big if - its frontline successors might well be re-usable or able to carry out multiple zappings in one mission. But they'd probably still tend to be employed more as cruise missiles than as armed drones - the more so as their primary targets would be hostile air-defence arrays, which tend to call for a high degree of autonomy on the part of attacking flying things if they're to survive. ®

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