The worst time for people to learn about a new weapon is in the middle of a geopolitical crisis. So it is with CHAMP, a long-in-development missile built for the Air Force that is now, thanks to several delays in production, making a popular debut coincidentally paired with fears about North Korea.
CHAMP, or the “Counter-electronics High Power Microwave Advanced Missile Project,” is a missile built to fry computers, with microwaves. It is almost certainly not, despite recent coverage at CNN, NBC and elsewhere, a silver bullet against a North Korean ICBM.
So what does CHAMP have to do with North Korea?
Great question! The short answer is nothing. CHAMP predates the current tensions between North Korea and the United States, and CHAMP will likely post-date them as well. For our purposes, there are only two points about CHAMP worth mentioning.
The first is that, as a weapon built to fry electronics and computers, we’d be hard-pressed to find another conventional military that CHAMP is less useful against. North Korean artillery poses a major risk to military personnel on the DMZ and yet thanks to both the age of the artillery pieces and thanks to the rocky emplacements protecting the weapons, they would likely be unaffected by a microwave blast from CHAMP.
Second, most ballistic missiles are designed or at least stored with some thought to protection against just this sort of attack. So even if the North Korean missiles aren’t protected on the launch pad, they’re likely protected against this in storage before launch. Once on the launch pad, an ICBM is as vulnerable to a CHAMP-style attack as it would be to a conventional cruise missile, and once launched, it would be astronomically unlikely that a targeted microwave beam could fry the ICBM’s circuits, especially while the missile travels through space.
What does CHAMP actually do?
CHAMP is a missile that can emit targeted blasts of microwaves to fry electronics, without damaging the electronics in the way an explosive might. That alone is a strange and novel capability, and one worth reporting on as such. It is especially novel as the rare weapon that produces an electromagnetic effect, designed to disable computers, that isn’t also a nuclear weapon simultaneously producing some other, more pressing effects.
Is there a cheesy animated video showing how CHAMP works?
You bet! It’s from 2013, though the graphics scream mid-1990s to me. Also in the video: computers at a demonstration site suddenly fading to black as they’re hit by CHAMP.
But none of that was intercepting a missile.
Correct! Missile defense is a complicated and risky science, built around detecting missiles in flight and then launching other missiles directly into those incoming missiles to stop them. CHAMP, instead, is a tool in a cruise-missile body designed to fry a bunch of computers inside a building, so that the people using those computers can’t use them any more. It’s weird to see CHAMP framed as a tool against missiles, when the closest it might ever get to that mission is trying to fry a missile command center well before an ICBM is launched. (A mission with extremely limited probability of success, at best).
Why haven’t I heard of CHAMP until now?
CHAMP has been in the works for the better part of a decade, and the defense press has dutifully and soberly covered its development for years. The program began in 2009 and had a demonstration in 2012, with planned availability promised for 2016, though that’s been pushed back.
What is CHAMP good for?
There are many possible uses for a missile that can fry electronics, but I wouldn’t hold my breath for a bolt-out-of-the-blue attack. While CHAMP’s payload is radically different from a conventional cruise missile, it still launches and flies like a normal cruise missile, so an attack by CHAMP would likely be perceived as though it was a regular cruise missile attack, before CHAMP could even have its desired effect. If the goal of the missile is an attack without any loss of life, then the fact that the attack comes in the body of a missile is counterproductive at best.
Instead of miracle attacks against nuclear states, expect to see CHAMP or CHAMP-like weapons used either in purely conventional wars, without nukes on the table, or maybe even against foes without the capability to detect or respond to cruise missiles, like insurgents. A weapon that can fry computers and leave people intact is bound to find a use somewhere in America’s present and future wars. I just wouldn’t expect to see it stop a North Korean nuclear weapon.
Kelsey Atherton blogs about military technology for C4ISRNET, Fifth Domain, Defense News, and Military Times. He previously wrote for Popular Science, and also created, solicited, and edited content for a group blog on political science fiction and international security.