Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Air Force is surveying industry for high-power microwave (HPM) technologies that could be incorporated into unmanned aerial vehicles, bombs and cruise missiles, according to a request for information published on the Federal Business Opportunities Web site today.

The Defense Department is experimenting with HPM technologies for a number of applications. Targeted microwaves with sufficient power can disable or destroy electronic systems found in much of today’s military gear.

“High-power microwaves have a potential in command [and] control warfare, in suppressing enemy air defenses, and against tactical or unmanned aerial vehicles,” states a 2002 fact sheet on HPM research issued by the Air Force Research Laboratory. “The low collateral damage aspect of the technology makes high-power microwave weapons useful in a wide variety of missions where avoiding civilian casualties is a major concern.”

The Air Force is looking for technologies at various stages of maturity. The request for information dubs as “immediate capabilities” those technologies that could be used in weapon systems with little effort. Another category, called “near-term” capabilities, includes systems that could be weaponized within one year; “transitionable capabilities" are those requiring more time, according to the notice.

The military already is using HPM technology in a nonlethal weapon called Active Denial System. The weapon works by emitting a directed beam of millimeter wave energy toward people, causing an extremely painful burning sensation without physical injury.

According to the
request for Information (RFI) concerning current High Power Microwave (HPM) source technology capabilities for use as a Counter Electronics payload that would not cause physical damage to buildings or harm to humans. Responses to this RFI will be used by the Government to perform studies and analyses of the industrial base for this technology for potential use in future AF weapons systems. The information you provide may be utilized by the Air Force in developing its acquisition strategy.

It could soon get a lot hotter in LA. The Los Angeles County Sheriff is apparently looking at the Active Denial System, a directed energy weapon that created a burning sensation, for possible use in the City of Angels:

The Air Force is seeking proposals for high-powered microwave weapons to "use as a Counter Electronics payload that would not cause physical damage to buildings or harm to humans." And they're not looking for blue sky type ideas either: they want either "immediate capabilities" that are ready for use or "near-term capabilities" that could be in commercial production in less than a year.

That's a tall order, because despite advances in high-powered microwave weapons, there's been some difficulties in developing fieldable weapons, as Aviation Week's Dave Fulghum noted earlier this year:

The development of HPM weapons has been hobbled for the last 30 years by seemingly intractable cost, size, beam-control and power-generation requirements. Tests of modified air-launched cruise missiles carrying devices to produce explosively generated spikes of energy were considered big disappointments in the early 1990s because of an inability to direct pulses and predict effects. New active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars can jam emitters or possibly cause damage to electronic components with focused beams. But power levels and ranges are limited by aperture size.

That said, some of the U.S. companies active in this area --like Raytheon and BAE Systems North America -- are quick to talk up advances. For example, Aviation Week's Fulghum in that same article notes that BAE Systems claims it has combined lasers and high-powered microwaves, and Raytheon is already marketing a ground-based weapon that can protect airports from missiles.


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