There was a welcome piece of news released at the beginning of December about the United States development of a microwave weapon, which could potentially fry North Korea’s electronics and render them unable to launch any missiles. Considering the world has been on edge after North Korea’s tests of missiles and even a hydrogen bomb, the possibility of shutting them down is good to hear.
The question is how realistic this idea of stopping North Korea with a microwave weapon is. To know that, it’s important to understand what these weapons do.
How a Microwave Weapon Works
The microwave weapon that the United States has been developing since 2009 is called the Counter-electronics High Power Microwave Advanced Missile Project (CHAMP). To put what it does in simple terms, it sends powerful microwave signals to electronic devices. Those signals can disrupt the circuits in those devices and potentially disable them entirely.
This wouldn’t be the first time the U.S. military has used microwave weapons. It has previously done so in the Middle East to stop IEDs and drones when it wasn’t taking those down the old-fashioned way.
To use the CHAMPs, the military first puts them on cruise missiles, and then those missiles are loaded onto B-52 bombers. The bomber fires those missiles near enough to the enemy’s electronics that the CHAMPs will fry them.
The military hasn’t released how close a CHAMP needs to get to be effective, as that would tip off North Korea. So far, there has been one test of a CHAMP with results released to the public. It took place in 2012, and the weapon worked almost exactly as expected.
Anything that can affect North Korea’s electronics could strike a significant blow to the country. It has developed an impressive cyber warfare capability in recent years, making millions of dollars each year by hacking corporate networks. The scale of this hacking has been a key factor pushing major financial organizations to look at blockchain as a way of keeping funds secure.
The Problems with Using CHAMPs Against North Korea
Frying North Korea’s electronics is, unfortunately, an idealistic best-case scenario. Directed-energy weapons sound great in theory, but are typically not very useful in the real world, and talk of a new “military laser” almost never amounts to much.
Lasers have long been a staple of science fiction, but most of the weapons used by the U.S. military are decidedly old school. Handguns issued to soldiers, Glock 17s and 19s, are based on a design that’s some 40 years old. The Chinook helicopter has been in use since the Vietnam War and is supposed to last 100 years.
The biggest problem with the CHAMP is how the military would need to use it against North Korea. It doesn’t matter if the weapon in a missile won’t kill people. Firing a weapon at North Korea would still be an act of war, which the United States is trying to avoid if possible. The rest of the world wouldn’t like it, and North Korea could use it as justification for launching a retaliatory strike.
Even if the United States had a valid reason to fire CHAMPs at North Korea, that presents its own challenges, especially during wartime. North Korea likely has mobile launchers tucked away in different areas. The U.S. military would need to quickly figure out where the launchers were and target them, before North Korea was able to launch its missiles. It would be a very small window of time with no room for errors.
It’s Wise to Temper Expectations Regarding the CHAMP
Odds are that the CHAMP won’t be a game-changer when it comes to North Korea. If the weapon was that important, it’s likely that the U.S. military would have kept it under wraps.
The fact that they released this information to the public suggests that they want to put North Korea on edge by letting them know about this capability. If North Korea has any issues with its tests, there will be that question of whether it was a failure on its own part or something the United States did.
A CHAMP probably won’t end up stopping a North Korean missile that’s about to launch. It could, however, be effective in stopping drones and disrupting or disabling known facilities. Those may not be as high profile as frying North Korea’s missile controls, but they’re still important.