The Complex

Boeing's flying blackout

While everyone in Washington is talking about the upcoming presidential debate today, one of the U.S. Air Force's newest high-tech toys was taking big step -- er, flight -- forward.

The Counter-electronics High-powered Microwave Advanced Missile Project (CHAMP) is an effort to build a missile that flies over -- not into -- a target, be it an entire military base, neighborhood, or a even a lone tank and shuts down all the electronics inside without harming a soul. (Think of it almost as a mini-EMP in a rocket.) On Oct. 16, a CHAMP missile flew an hour-long preprogrammed route low over the Utah desert, "degrading and defeating" the electronics inside seven different targets. In a building along the route packed with computers, the screens all went dark as CHAMP sailed by, emitting a blast of high-power microwaves, according to CHAMP-maker Boeing's Oct. 22 press release announcing the test flight. (The weapon even took out the remotely controlled TV cameras that were monitoring the tests, claimed Boeing.)

As the Chicago-based defense giant says in its press release, "CHAMP, which renders electronic targets useless, is a non-kinetic alternative to traditional explosive weapons that use the energy of motion to defeat a target." (Side note: "energy of motion" is a nice way of saying that missiles, bombs, and bullets slam into things and explode.)

So, how does CHAMP fit into the Pentagon's post Iraq and Afghan war plans? As everyone knows, the Defense Department is focusing on how to defeat new generations of air defense radars, surface to air missiles, anti ship missiles, and a host of other technologies that are specifically meant to keep American weapons systems at bay.

This means coming up with a fleet of new stealth bombers, fighters, and drone jets that can penetrate these defenses. It also means creating a bevy of long-range -- or standoff weapons -- capable of being launched by unstealthy jets far away from heavily defended targets. Where does something like CHAMP come in? As a door kicker. Launched from a stealth aircraft and designed to take out enemy air defense networks and command and control centers, CHAMP would pave the way for less stealthy jets and help to "blind" the enemy.

"In the near future, this technology may be used to render an enemy's electronic and data systems useless even before the first troops or aircraft arrive," said Keith Coleman, CHAMP program manager at Boeing's Phantom Works division, in a press release.

Still, don't expect to see CHAMP fielded soon. It's simply meant to demonstrate that such a weapon is feasible. In the meantime, the Pentagon is buying EA-18G Growler electronic attack jets for the Navy while the Air Force and Marine Corps hope to use something called the Next Generation Jammer along with powerful Active Electronically Scanned Array radars (AESA radars can be used to jam other radars, in addition to many other things) on their F-35 Joint Strike Fighters to defeat enemy sensors. And don't be surprised if the Navy decides to equip its planned fleet of stealthy combat drones, known as UCLASS, with some sort of electronic warfare gear aimed at jamming enemy electronics.


National Security

Tracking chips and kill switches for MANPADS

The United States government has so far resisted the pleas of Syrian rebels to equip them with shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles (known as Man Portable Air Defense Systems, or MANPADS) out of fears that such weapons could fall into the wrong hands and be used to bring down civilian aircraft. However, one idea being floated by a Washington, D.C.-based think tank is to install tracking chips and kill switches in such weapons to prevent them from being used to shoot down civilian planes or the U.S. and allied militaries.

Tucked away in the second half of an essay titled "Syria, U.S. Power Projection, and the Search for an ‘Equalizer,'" Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) suggests that the United States could use GPS chips (just like the ones in your cell phone that help you find directions to the nearest restaurant) and some sort of kill switch to track and disable MANPADS that are at risk of being used to attack civilians or U.S. forces.

Advanced encryption chips can be equally small and cheap and could perform a number of additional functions. They could have a time clock to disable the weapon at a given time, with the option of extending the life if a suitable code was entered. Activation codes could be built in so the weapon was never active without a code restricted to moderate elements and timed so that such elements had to keep entering a different code over time.

The equivalent of an identification friend or foe (IFF) capability could be built into that disabled the weapon in the presence of U.S. and allied forces or civil aircraft. A similar enabling code could be tied to the presence of a U.S. or allied adviser or covert partner.

Don't expect this technology to show up on Syrian battlefields anytime soon. Installing GPS chips in cellphones is one thing, putting them on a MANPAD is another.

"This is not the kind of technology that's currently in mass production or that is available in a time frame that fits the Syria crisis for 2012," Cordesman's fellow analyst at CSIS, Aram Nerguizian, told Killer Apps today.

While this tech isn't ready for prime time in Syria, it may soon appear in similar conflicts that are likely to emerge in the coming years, according to Nerguizian.

"It hasn't been translated into working prototypes that we've seen in public, that doesn't mean that this sort of thing isn't going on," said Nerguizian. "We're looking at a world where you're going to see a lot of these asymmetric wars popping up."

"There is no appetite in the U.S., in Western Europe, or elsewhere for protracted military conflicts where you have to put boots on the ground . . .  for strategic outcomes that can't be secured realistically," he added.  

Nerguizian said, however, there still are inherent risks to a technology-based solution: "If you insist on playing a role, and that includes providing military aid, [and] if you plan on providing actual combat systems, you'd better be ready for the consequences [of arming rebels] or at least have some safeguard in place" to prevent misuse.

Nerguizian pointed out the fact that people who get their hands on such weapons could quickly find a way to disable or spoof tracking chips and kill switches.

"Vulnerabilities exist, they tend to be closed fairly quickly, but that doesn't guarantee that you're going to have a safe and secure system," said Nerguizian. "The technology has evolved in a way so that it could be done, whether or not it can be done in a way that provides 100 percent safeguards [against misuse], that's the uncertainty."