This week, science fiction became science fact as a Boeing CHAMP missile knocked out a building full of electronics in the Utah desert at Hill Air Force Base. There was no explosion and no flying shrapnel. There was only the sound of the missile’s engine as it flew overhead and the sputtering of sophisticated computers crashing as they were hit by a beam of high-energy microwaves.
CHAMP, which stand for Counter-electronics High-powered Microwave Advanced Missile Project, is a cruise missile that replaces an explosive weapon with a sort of “death ray” for electronics. The effect is similar to Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) bombs that show up in James Bond films and give military planners nightmares about computer networks being disabled in a split second.
The difference is that where an EMP weapon uses a nuclear warhead or an explosive shot through a wire coil to generate a pulse over an area, the Boeing CHAMP missile aims a precise beam of high-energy microwaves at a target, or multiple targets, as it flies over.
The military advantages of such a weapon are obvious. "This technology marks a new era in modern-day warfare," said Keith Coleman, CHAMP program manager for Boeing Phantom Works. "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."
Monday’s test, carried out in conjunction with the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) Directed Energy Directorate, Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico, used a two-story building filled with electronics as the primary target. As the missile flew over in a pre-programmed course, it blasted the building with microwaves.
In seconds, the computers and other electronics inside were knocked out and even the cameras to record the test were rendered inoperative. That day, seven targets were hit and their electronics were disabled by the microwave beam before the missile flew to an “undisclosed location” and returned to Earth.