How Boeing’s non-lethal CHAMP missiles could mark ‘a new era in modern-day warfare’
Stephen Starr, Special to National Post | Jan 12, 2013 5:47 PM ET | Last Updated: Jan 12, 2013 5:50 PM
Courtesy of BoeingThe Boeing Phantom Works’ Counter-electronics High-powered Microwave Advanced Missile Project (CHAMP) sends out electromagnetic pulses to disable any electronics in a wide area.
Q: Are there really microwave missiles?
A: Yes. A three-year, US$40-million project to launch Boeing Phantom Works’ Counter-electronics High-powered Microwave Advanced Missile Project (CHAMP) became reality in the Utah desert last October. The missile — launched from an aircraft before flying over its target — sends out electromagnetic pulses that are designed to disable any electronics in a wide area — destroying an enemy’s computers and communications without killing enemy soldiers or civilians. In the October test, the missile fired microwaves at a two-storey building causing all the electronics and computers inside to go dark. Even the cameras monitoring the test were knocked out.
Q: Wow. Is this new technology?
A: It’s been around for a while.The microwave pulse — similar to an electromagnetic pulse — can damage electrical equipment rather like what happens after a nuclear bomb explodes. Pulses were first detected in the 1940s, and even expected by scientists during nuclear detonation tests.
Q: What’s been the reaction to the test?
A: Boeing CHAMP program manager Keith Coleman was elated. “Today we made science fiction science fact,” he said. “This technology marks a new era in modern-day warfare.” Norman Friedman, a defence analyst and former deputy director of National Security Studies at the Hudson Institute, said, “It’s a very attractive idea. It’s a non-lethal weapon that could be extremely effective.”
Q: Why is it so important at this time?
A: The deployment of unmanned drones, not boots on the ground, has become a cornerstone of U.S. President Barack Obama’s foreign policy. Better targeting of enemy sites may also help restore faith in overseas Western intervention, long viewed negatively by populations of Pakistan, the Arab world and other Muslim countries.
Q: Outside the kitchen, just how effective are microwaves?
A: Some experts are sceptical of the CHAMP missile’s effectiveness. “The claim was that it was used once and the lights went out in one area. That doesn’t prove a lot,” Mr. Friedman said. He also expressed reservations about the area and distance over which the CHAMP may effectively operate. “Furthermore, if you’re in contact with enemy forces through backchannels or diplomacy, then you lose this channel if this technology is deployed.” Ben Goodlad, a senior analyst and missiles specialist at IHS Jane’s, says no military has committed to buying the weapon at this stage, and all funding has so far been for research and development.
Q: Could it have been used already?
A: Whether this technology may have been deployed in Libya in 2011 or in Syria, where the UN says over 60,000 people have now died, is debatable, military experts believe. “It might have been able to damage [Col. Muammar] Gaddafi’s ability to control his own forces and that might have made things end a lot faster,” Mr. Friedman said. “But it worked out pretty well for NATO in any case.”
Q: Will Canada buy in?
A: With access to information about the wider world increasingly available in the public sphere, Western governments are having to become savvier about deciding if, when and how to become involved in conflicts overseas. As such, weapons like CHAMP might favour the peacekeeping roles Canadian forces are often involved in. Martin Shadwick, a professor at York University and a Canadian defence policy expert, said: “One could envisage a scenario where we could say to the public that by using this technology, it reduces the risk of so-called collateral damage. Generally speaking, it could improve public support.” For the Royal Canadian Air Force, the cost of buying the CHAMP, still relatively unproven, may put it out of reach, said Mr. Shadwick. “Canada’s track record on buying so-called smart weapons has been constrained by financial constraints.”
Stephen Starr is a journalism fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto and the author of Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising.