Born into Generation X, I grew up with the threat of nuclear war — and all its corollaries, from visions of mushroom clouds to “duck and cover” drills in high school to Terminator movies, and of course, the ever-present worry that one day a sneaky Soviet satellite would detonate way up in the sky and fry all of our electronics with an “electromagnetic pulse.”
So imagine my surprise when the U.S. Air Force confirmed last week that it’s developed an electromagnetic pulse weapon of its own, and that Boeing (NYSE: BA ) is helping to build it.
Oak Ridge National Laboratory maps the areas likely to be blacked out in the event of a high-altitude nuclear EMP attack on the United States. Boeing’s area of effect will be considerably smaller. Image source: Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
A CHAMP-ion idea
The weapon in question: Boeing’s “CHAMP,” short for Counter-electronics High-powered Microwave Advanced Missile Project. It’s essentially the old nuclear electromagnetic pulse weapon that we used to worry so much about — but without the nuclear part. CHAMP carries a small generator that emits microwaves to fry electronics with pinpoint accuracy. It targets not nations or cities but individual buildings, blacking out their electronics rather than blowing up physical targets (or people).
What makes CHAMP even more interesting is that, unlike a nuclear electromagnetic pulse weapon, which fires once, blacking out entire nation-states, CHAMP can fire multiple times, pinpointing and blacking out only essential targets. This would permit, for example, taking down radar defenses in a hostile state, while saving the electrical grid that supports the civilian population. In a 2012 test flight in Utah, a single CHAMP was reported to have blacked out seven separate targets in succession, in one single mission.