The Pentagon’s Counter-Electronics High-Power Advanced Microwave Project (CHAMP) has been one of the sci-fi like weapons programs that has the ability to change warfare as we know forever. Now it looks like the CHAMP has found an ideal delivery vehicle, the stealthy Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile-Extended Range.
The whole idea behind CHAMP is to be able to destroy an enemy’s command, control, communication and computing, surveillance and intelligence (C4SI) capabilities without doing any damage to the people or traditional infrastructure in and around it. In other words, it can eliminate a facility’s effectiveness by destroying the electronics within it alone, via a microwave pulse, without kinetically attacking the facility itself. Think of it as the mother of all less than lethal weapons.
The effects of a CHAMP are very similar to what would happen during an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) caused by a high-altitude nuclear detonation or by a powerful solar storm, just on a much smaller, more focused scale. Unlike an EMP bomb, which are area weapons and indiscriminate as to who they target within their blast area, CHAMP is really an EMP assassin that comes in and surgically eliminates an enemy’s war enabling technology, barely leaving a fingerprint it was ever even there.
The technology has been around conceptually for many years and something like it was even rumored to have been deployed secretly before. For instance, there were reports that during the fall of Qaddafi, unmanned aircraft orbited over Libya’s most volatile weapons stockpiles and zapped vehicles engines and electronics that approached.
Regardless of if this technology already exists in any operational form or not, CHAMP is a heavier hitting capability that could very well save many lives while dealing the enemy a huge blow during the opening stages of major air campaigns. CHAMP, which is a Boeing and Air Force Research Laboratory project, was successfully tested in 2012 aboard a AGM-86 Conventional Air Launched Cruise Missile (CALCM). During the test, which occurred over a bombing and testing range in Utah, the CHAMP equipped CALCM flew over a two story building filled with computers and other powered technology and initiated a high-power, directed microwave burst above it as it passed by. The burst knocked out all the equipment inside. The test went on to zap six more targets successfully before the missile crashed itself in a pre-designated area. Other test flights are set to have followed, and even hardened targets were not completely immune to CHAMP’s zapping power.
CHAMP’s previous tests are said to have used a unit based on a powerful vacuum tube that used a magnetron that produces large directed pulses of microwave radiation. Newer systems will most likely be based on Active Electronically Scanned Arrays (AESAs) like those used in cutting-edge radar systems. These systems have a whole slew of advantages of their ‘analogue’ predecessors, one of which is miniaturization, beam focus and agility.
X-band AESA radar arrays are currently flying aboard F-15C and F/A-18E/F/G and F-22 fighters, and will be a centerpiece sensor aboard the F-35. They are also migrating to airborne surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft, as well as surface combatants. Details as to these platform’s ability to use their powerful radars for pinpoint “soft kill” attacks against electronics, especially those fitted onto sensitive enemy sensors and even incoming missiles, remains cloaked in classification but is clearly exists. As one contact of mine in the electronic warfare field puts, “everywhere there is an aperture (an antenna or radar array) there is a vulnerability.”
Now, as CHAMP is nearing operational form, it needs a proper platform that can deploy it against the enemy. Although the CALCM is a proven weapon, and converting older AGM-86s over to CHAMP makes sense in the interim, it is an old missile and not nearly as capable or survivable as modern stealthy cruise missiles such as Lockheed’s Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile, or JASSM.
JASSM-ER (for Extended Range) is a logical platform for CHAMP as it can be launched by both bombers and fighters, and is a proven design that is already being evolved into a highly advanced anti-ship missile, the Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile, or LRASM. Also, it is smart and stealthy, able to actively detect threatening radars and evade or attack them, making it survivable against the world’s most capable air defense systems.
The ER model also offers double the range as the older AGM-158 JASSM model (about 550 miles), and this may even end up being extended further as the CHAMP equipped JASSM-ER will need no terminal homing sensor or warhead at all, which could make space for more fuel.
Once integrated into JASSM-ER, CHAMP will be a ‘first day of war’ standoff weapon that can be launched outside an enemy’s area-denial/anti-access capabilities, and fly a route over known C4SI facilities, zapping them along its way, before destroying itself at the end of its mission. Because of its stealth design, long-range and is expendable, it will fly where no other assets could and because it does not blow anything up, its use does not necessarily give away the fact that the enemy is under direct attack in the first place. In that sense, it is a psychological weapon, capable of at least partially blinding an enemy before they even know that a larger-scale attack is coming.
CHAMP may have trouble knocking out the most hardened enemy electronic systems, but their sensors are possibly another story. Command and control components and sensors used at surface-to-air missile sites and for integrated air defense system connectivity could be put at great risk by the stealthy JASSM-ER/CHAMP combo. Such a system could loiter for prolonged periods of time over enemy territory, and use similar radar warning receivers as those featured on the LRASM to attack enemy air defense nodes that come online.
If a swarm of these missiles were networked together, they could work as a team to suppress the enemy’s ability to communicate and defend itself in real time without any direction from human operators. In such a role, CHAMP equipped JASSM-ERs could be used alongside Miniature Air Launched Decoys to play complete havoc on an enemy’s ability to defend its airspace to an incoming attack.
Although the stealthy and expensive JASSM-ER will be an effective ‘fire and forget’ platform for a CHAMP-like device, this capability is really suited for unmanned aircraft that can have all the advantages of JASSM-ER but can return to base to be used again when their mission ends. Really, any combat aircraft could benefit from a CHAMP-like ability.
Even if laser weaponry is seen as the future’s super pinpoint aerial attack capability, it still causes physical damage to its target, including to human beings. CHAMP on the other hand would be able to neutralize many targets by destroying electronics alone. In doing so the system could be greatly effective at doing everything from stopping trucks full of insurgents, to rendering improvised explosive devices (IEDs) inoperable, to disabling massive command and control facilities full of computers and communications devices. As such, everything from a Predator unmanned aircraft to an F-35 could use such a capability in its quiver.
Seeing as CHAMP can fit inside a CALCM today, and probably inside a small diameter bomb in the future, there is no reason to think that combat aircraft around the globe won’t be equipped with CHAMP-like pods in the not so distant future. Even here at home, law enforcement could use such a device to totally eliminate dangerous high-speed vehicle chases. The Coast Guard and Navy could also potentially use similar devices to disable unresponsive ships or those that are swarming around surface combatants in a combined attack.
A very precise, close-in air defense version of CHAMP, based on an AESA type emitter, could solve the White House’s and other VVIP’s hobby drone problems. Simply zap them out of the sky by frying their electronic components instead of using kinetic weapons, such as missiles or bullets, or even lasers. This precise ‘soft kill’ capability solves so many modern day security and defense problems that it could very well revolutionize the way we look at ‘striking’ a target.
Right now, CHAMP is like the first guided bombs of the 1970s. Sure, its technology is exciting and shown to be effective, but where it will quickly lead has the ability to change modern warfare as we know it forever, and for the better.
Contact the author at Tyler@jalopnik.com.