Born into Generation X, I grew up with the threat of nuclear war — and all its corollaries, from visions of mushroom clouds to “duck and cover” drills in high school to Terminator movies, and of course, the ever-present worry that one day a sneaky Soviet satellite would detonate way up in the sky and fry all of our electronics with an “electromagnetic pulse.”
So imagine my surprise when the U.S. Air Force confirmed last week that it’s developed an electromagnetic pulse weapon of its own, and that Boeing (NYSE: BA ) is helping to build it.
Oak Ridge National Laboratory maps the areas likely to be blacked out in the event of a high-altitude nuclear EMP attack on the United States. Boeing’s area of effect will be considerably smaller. Image source: Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
A CHAMP-ion idea
The weapon in question: Boeing’s “CHAMP,” short for Counter-electronics High-powered Microwave Advanced Missile Project. It’s essentially the old nuclear electromagnetic pulse weapon that we used to worry so much about — but without the nuclear part. CHAMP carries a small generator that emits microwaves to fry electronics with pinpoint accuracy. It targets not nations or cities but individual buildings, blacking out their electronics rather than blowing up physical targets (or people).
What makes CHAMP even more interesting is that, unlike a nuclear electromagnetic pulse weapon, which fires once, blacking out entire nation-states, CHAMP can fire multiple times, pinpointing and blacking out only essential targets. This would permit, for example, taking down radar defenses in a hostile state, while saving the electrical grid that supports the civilian population. In a 2012 test flight in Utah, a single CHAMP was reported to have blacked out seven separate targets in succession, in one single mission.
When CHAMP lights up, buildings go dark — one by one. Image source: Boeing.
Even back then, a Boeing representative was able to boast: “We hit every target we wanted to,” predicting further that “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.” Three years later, that future has arrived. Air Force Research Laboratory commander Maj. Gen. Tom Masiello says CHAMP is “an operational system already in our tactical air force.”
Who makes it?
Boeing headlines the CHAMP product, but at least two other companies are known to be involved in the project. According to Military Embedded Systems, it’s actually Raytheon (NYSE: RTN ) that builds the electronic innards of the device — the “shooting end” of a weapon that doesn’t actually shoot anyone. (Raytheon’s involvement shouldn’t come as a surprise, given the company’s expertise building complementary weapons, such as its MALD-J radar-spoofing, electronics-jamming drone.)
Additionally, Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT ) builds the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile — Extended Range (JASSM-ER), which the Air Force intends to use as CHAMP’s delivery mechanism. A cruise missile with an estimated range in excess of 600 miles, JASSM-ER will itself be deployable from combat aircraft such as F-15 and F-16 fighter jets, B-1 and B-52 bombers, and the F-35 stealth fighter — extending CHAMP’s reach even further.
To date, Military Embedded Systems notes that the Air Force Research Laboratory has contracted Boeing to build only five CHAMP devices. But the trend in Pentagon acquisitions projects suggests the Air Force could soon be building these weapons en masse. From MALD-J radar-jamming drones to Switchblade kamikaze guided rockets and now CHAMP mini-electromagnetic-pulse weapons, the Air Force seems intent on fighting its next war more or less entirely by remote control.
To the extent CHAMP makes that easier for them, I expect it to be a very popular product indeed.
CHAMP could be arriving in Air Force arsenals soon — delivered by Stealth. Image source: Boeing.