Ever since sci-fi became a thing, sci-fi weapons also became a thing. Lasers, rayguns, microwave weapons, you name it, and someone wrote about it. Many of these are still fiction, but some are inching towards reality. Laser weapons, for instance, are already being tested by the US military and many speculate that they're already close to being used. Something else that militarists are looking closely at are microwave weapons.
If there's any big sci-fi franchise that's been teasing weapons, it's Star Wars. For half a century, the Star Wars universe has featured all sorts of crazy weapons (including your favorite lightsabers), but many of these don't have any equivalent in the real world.
But that may soon change. Some recent weapon systems and defense experiments (conducted both in and outside the US) have successfully managed to demonstrate the use of high-powered microwave weapons technology.
The physics of microwave weapons stands up to scrutiny and according to defense experts, they can do a lot of damage. In theory, at least, a long-range microwave beam could cause severe damage to human brain cells and tissues, and make soldiers and other nearby people permanently blind.
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What are microwave-based weapons and how do they work?
Image credits: Francesco Ungaro/pexels
High-power microwave (HPM) weapons use focused electromagnetic energy beams (frequencies ranging between 500 MHz to 3 GHz) that can disable electronic systems, disarm air defense networks, and destroy enemy facilities. Such weapons are also called directed energy weapons (DEW), and they are able to release energy in the form of microwaves, laser beams, plasma, or sonic rays.
Microwaves are essentially a form of electromagnetic radiation. The wavelengths of microwaves range from one meter to one millimeter, and they work at a frequency between 300 MHz and 300 GHz. You can kind of tell that microwaves can do a lot of damage just by thinking about your microwave and how quickly it heats up your food or drinks. It does this by sending energy dispersed as molecular rotations and raising the temperature.
Your microwave weapon only works in a small enclosure, but microwaves can be used to transmit power over long distances -- and this is the principle on which proposed microwave weapons would also work.
A powerful microwave weapon system has three main units: a pulse power source that produces high voltage electrical pulses; an HPM source that generates microwaves either from a linear electron beam (by converting the kinetic energy of electrons into electromagnetic radiation); or directly through impulsive sources such as electronic circuits; and finally, an antenna that allows the focus of high power microwaves on a target.
Unlike conventional artillery units, microwave-based weapon systems do not require any physical ammunition but they do demand high amounts of electrical power, and they can also work with explosive chemicals as well.
Promising developments in the field of microwave weapon technology
In January 2019, a notice was released by the Department of Defence revealing that the US army is planning to create an Ultrashort Pulse Laser (USPL) system in order to advance its tactical capabilities and meet future warfare demands. USPL is a part of the department’s plans to modernize the army and on completion, it could become the most powerful laser-based weapon system ever made.
However, USPL is not the only initiative that is concerned with the development of microwave weapons. Here are some similar programs and microwave weapons that exist in reality:
- Rapid Capabilities and Critical Technologies Office (RCCTO) under the US Army has developed a Directed Energy-Maneuver Short-Range Air Defense (DEM SHORAD) system to shoot down enemy’s drone swarms and other hostile UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles). This laser-shooting system comes installed on Stryker vehicles and by 2022, RCCTO is planning to deliver at least four of these to the military.
- A 2018 report from South China Morning Post reveals that China has developed a lithium-ion powered laser rifle that can shoot invisible microwaves at the target and even make it catch fire. Being hailed as the laser equivalent of AK-47, this non-lethal assault gun is called ZKZM-500 and it is said to be used by the Chinese police and by the army in future covert military operations. However, many defence experts have raised doubts about the claims made by the Xian Institute of Optics and Precision Mechanics related to the range and laser-shooting abilities of ZKZM-500.
- European arms manufacturer MBDA is developing a laser weapon system named ‘Dragonfire’ that could be deployed on the warships owned by UK’s Royal Navy. This new LDEW (laser-directed energy weapon) system would be able to shoot several thousand-kilowatt powered lasers and provide defense against drones and other airborne enemy units. Recently, the British government also awarded military contracts worth $100 million to companies like Raytheon and Thales for the development of directed energy weapon systems.
- A video uploaded by the US Navy in May 2020 shows a successful laser weapon test conducted at a San Antonio-class transport ship USS Portland. During the test, a 150 kW powered laser weapon system shoots an energy beam at a AV flying in the sky, the target catches fire as soon as it comes in contact with the beam and gets destroyed.
- India’s Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) is working on a classified project named Durga II, which is actually a 100-kilowatt, lightweight directed-energy system. The organization plans to design Durga II in such a manner that it could be deployed anywhere from land-based military vehicles to aircraft and naval warships.
Apart from these recent developments, countries like Russia, Australia, and Israel have also been developing their own microwave-based laser weapon systems. Some of those systems have been already deployed and others are in the testing or development phase.
Microwave weapons other than laser-based systems
An LRAD deployed at USS Blue Ridge. Image credits: Tucker M. Yates/Wikimedia Commons
When compared to traditional artillery, microwave weapons have many tactical advantages. For instance, microwaves when fired from a weapon hit the target without being affected by any external factors such as wind, weather, inertia, gravity, etc. Plus, the enemy soldiers can neither see nor hear any approaching microwave shots unless they have specialized microwave detecting sensors. Moreover, microwave weapons only require a power supply unit and no other heavy logistics or ammunition supply units during a mission.
These are the main reasons why countries and defense companies are spending millions of dollars on creating efficient microwave weapons. However, these aren't the only types of futuristic weapons actively researched in the military field.
Other types of futuristic weapons
Sonic and ultrasonic weapons
These weapons release unbearable sound waves that can cause pain, intense headache, ear bleeding, eyeball vibration, and even permanent hearing loss. Sound cannons used by the police to control the crowd during a protest are also an example of sonic weapons, they operate on a frequency similar to microwaves. A sonic system falls in the non-lethal weapon category and is sometimes also referred to as a long-range acoustic device (LRAD).
Similar to Han Solo’s Blaster gun, plasma weapons are capable of firing bolts of plasma at the enemy. In physics, plasma is called the fourth state of matter which is formed by free ionized electrons and may contain some other subatomic particles as well. They are used to daze, burn, or warn the target but similar to sonic weapons they are also said to be non-lethal.
The Plasma Acoustic Shield System (PASS) being developed by Stellar Photonics for the US Army is one such plasma-based weapon system that would be capable of firing plasma shockwaves (both lethal and non-lethal) at the target.
Heat ray weapons
A DEW system, capable of increasing the surface temperature of a target and destroying the enemy’s electronic devices. It is designed for area security, port protection, and crowd control purposes and if a human is hit by a heat ray weapon, he or she may feel a burning sensation and intense pain in the skin.
The US Military’s Active Denial System is a riot-control weapon based on heat-ray technology, it can fire microwaves up to a distance of 1000 meters and is used in both defensive and offensive field operations.
From laser-shooting planes to bullet-less plasma rifles and vibration-causing sonic guns, defense researchers are working on many insane microwave weapon ideas but only time will tell how many of those become a reality.