July 25, 2011:
A U.S. government report (from the National Ground Intelligence Center) indicates that China has developed useful weapons for disabling the electronics on American aircraft and warships. This is done using high-powered microwave (HPM) devices to create something like the EMP (Electromagnetic Pulse) put out by nuclear weapons, which damages or destroys microelectronics. There are several ways to do this, some of which are real.
The most commonly mentioned devise for generating HPM is the AESA (Active Electronically Scanned Array) radars that are becoming standard equipment in modern warplanes. AESA is more reliable and, increasingly, no more expensive than the older mechanical (a small dish that moves around inside a dome) radar. AESA is also easier and cheaper to maintain, which makes a more expensive AESA cheaper, over its lifetime, than a cheaper (to buy) mechanically scanned radar. China has put a lot of resources into designing and building AESA radars.
AESA type radars have been around a long time, popular mainly for their ability deal with lots of targets simultaneously, and produce a more accurate picture of what is out there. But AESA was also a lot more expensive, and, until recently, less reliable, than older radar technologies. That has gradually changed. And now more uses are being found for the affordable and reliable AESA, which has developed into more than just an improved radar.
AESA radar consists of thousands of tiny radars that can be independently aimed in different directions. An AESA radar made the U.S. E-8 JSTARS aircraft possible, as it enabled it to locate vehicles moving on the ground. An innovative, and much smaller MP-RTIP AESA radar for the RQ-4 UAV can also spot smaller objects on the ground. As a result, with the RQ-4 UAV equipped with AESA, the U.S. Air Force has a choice between extending the life of the E-8 aircraft, or replacing them with the UAVs.
While AESA makes fighters much more effective, it's the many other uses of AESA that make this technology so attractive to warplane designers, and the Chinese. For example, the U.S. Air Force has been equipping some of its fighters with electronic ray type weapons. Not quite the “death ray” of science fiction fame, but an electronic ray type weapon none the less. In this case, the weapon uses the high-powered microwave (HPM) effects found in AESA radar technology. AESA is able to focus a concentrated beam of radio energy that could scramble electronic components of a distant target. Sort of like the EMP (Electromagnetic Pulse) put out by nuclear weapons. The air force won’t, for obvious reasons, discuss the exact “kill range” of the of the various models of AESA radars on American warplanes (the F-35 and F-22 have them). However, it is known that “range” in this case is an elastic thing. Depending on how well the target electronics are hardened against EMP, more electrical power will be required to do damage. Moreover, the electrical power of the various AESA radars in service varies as well. The air force has said that the larger AESA radars it is developing would be able to zap cruise missile guidance systems up to 180 kilometers away.
Then there's the EMP bomb, a legendary weapon that is much talked about, but has never actually been seen. Throughout the 1990s, information came out of Russia that a weapon had been developed that could generate a short range EMP (electromagnetic pulse) similar to that created by nuclear explosions. All computers within the range of the EMP bomb would be ruined. This is a truly devastating capability. Microprocessors are found everywhere these days; in automobiles, appliances, industrial equipment, medical devices and many other devices. Military microprocessors are often shielded to protect them against EMP, but the shielding is not thoroughly tested and even some military equipment will probably be disabled by an EMP attack.
A decade ago, a British military research team announced that they had duplicated the rumored Russian device and produced an EMP bomb that can fit in a 155mm artillery shell, small rockets or bombs. Such a device was supposed to be inexpensive and could be used to destroy civilian electronics that might be useful to nearby enemy troops. What is particularly worrisome about this new development is that, in the hands of terrorists, it could do a new kind of damage. While not killing people directly, the destruction of all electronics within an urban area could cause casualties and much economic loss. But none of these EMP bombs has ever actually reached the stage where they were actually ready to use. There was always some kind of flaw discovered in testing. Naturally, China is thought to have developed an EMP bomb.