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The US Army is developing a compact electromagnetic pulse weapon (EMP) weapon capable of fitting inside a 155mm artillery shell capable of being fired near key enemy infrastructure.
The artillery shell, with its non-explosive payload, would be used to disable the electronics and radio communications equipment of anything within a given radius around its flight path.
Such a weapon would disable the modern war-fighting capabilities of an enemy but, aimed at an enemy town or city, it would act as a siege weapon that would disable all communications and electronic infrastructure in the vicinity.
Similar in concept to the nuclear-based neutron bombs that the Soviet Union developed to kill through intense radiation while leaving equipment unaffected, the EMP rounds would disable sensitive equipment while leaving biological life unharmed.
The line of research is outlined in an Army research document that describes the EMP artillery attack vector and its uses:
Extensive use of wireless RF (radio frequency) networking for critical infrastructure and communications systems provides an alternative attack vector for neutralization of an adversary's underlying industrial, civil, and communications infrastructure without the destruction of the hardware associated with those systems.
Advances in munitions-based microelectronics and power technologies make possible the implementation of non-kinetic cyber and electromagnetic or electronic warfare (EW) attacks that could be delivered via artillery launched munitions.
The precision delivery of the non-kinetic effects (NKE) electronics payload close to the target allows low power operation which limits the geographical extent of impacted systems and reduces the overall impact on the electromagnetic spectrum.
The eventual goal, as implied in the research proposal, is to shrink the devices to the extent that multiple EMP bombs can fit inside a single shell, but at this point the Army is still working to miniaturize and is open to the possibility of employing larger bore guns if needed.
The Army already possesses much larger directed EMP weapons, both ground based and those mounted on drones that can disable all equipment they overfly.
A reported 2012 test of a weaponized drone dubbed CHAMP (Counter-electronics High-powered microwave Advanced Missile Project) took out the electronics on seven targets it flew over on a Utah test range.
Using directed EM Pulses, the system uses ultra-powerful microwave generators to overload the electronics found in military or civilian equipment.
Whether this weapon would use traditional microwave generators as the drone does or some other yet-unrevealed method to generate the sizable EMPs needed is unclear, but the Army is researching several EMP-generation systems.
Mounting the system on a truck or in a downward facing orientation on a drone is relatively easy but any ground-based vehicles require some degree of line-of-sight whereas a drone can be shot down.
If the Army is successful in miniaturizing the EMP bomb so that it fits into artillery ordnance, it will be far more difficult for an enemy to stop its attack.
Nuclear weapons generate enormously powerful EMPs but the accompanying heat, deadly radiation and kinetic energy makes them impractical for tactical use on the battlefield.
The Army's focus on medium powered EMP able precisely to target a specific area with such an effective delivery system implies that the Pentagon is concerned with collateral damage.
Frying the electronics of a government ministry or weapons cache while keeping a hospital and water treatment plant outside its range remains a possibility.
In a world where battles are fought with drones, advanced communications, smart munitions and highly mobile troops, bringing your enemy back to the pre-digital age and shutting down all communications equipment is an enormous tactical and strategic advantage.
The concept has been proven at larger sizes but now the challenge is set to shrink the system into a package small enough to be fired in an artillery shell.
It may only be a matter of time until we see even smaller applications which present an ever-increasing danger to our digital societies.