Ever since sci-fi became a thing, sci-fi guns became a thing. Lasers, ray cannons, microwave weapons, whatever, and someone wrote about it. Many of these are still fiction, but some are getting closer to reality. Laser weapons, for example, are already being tested by the US military and many speculate that they are about to be used. Another thing that militarists are scrutinizing is microwave weapons.
If there’s one big sci-fi franchise that teases guns, it’s Star Wars. All kinds of wacky weapons (including your favorite lightsabers) have been around in the Star Wars universe for half a century, but many of them have no real world equivalent.
But that may change soon. Some recent weapon systems and defense experiments (conducted both inside and outside the United States) have successfully demonstrated the use of high-powered microwave weapon technology.
The physics of microwave weapons stands up to scrutiny, and defense experts say 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, permanently blinding soldiers and other people nearby.
What are microwave based weapons and how do they work?
Photo credit: Francesco Ungaro / pexels
High-Power Microwave Weapons (HPM) use focused beams of electromagnetic energy (frequencies between 500 MHz and 3 GHz) that can disable electronic systems, disarm air defense networks, and destroy enemy facilities. Such weapons are also known as Directed Energy Weapons (DEW) and can release energy in the form of microwaves, laser beams, plasma or sound beams.
Microwaves are essentially a form of electromagnetic radiation. Microwaves have wavelengths from one meter to one millimeter and work at a frequency between 300 MHz and 300 GHz. You can tell that microwaves can do a lot of damage just by thinking about your microwave and how quickly it heats your food or drink. It does this by distributing energy as molecular rotations and increasing temperature.
Your microwave weapon only works in a small case, but microwaves can be used to transmit energy over long distances – and this is the principle on which proposed microwave weapons would work too.
A powerful microwave weapon system consists of three main units: a pulsed power source that generates high voltage electrical pulses; an HPM source that generates microwaves from either a linear electron beam (by converting the kinetic energy of electrons into electromagnetic radiation); or directly from pulse sources such as electronic circuitry; and finally, an antenna that allows high power microwaves to be focused on a target.
Unlike traditional artillery units, microwave-based weapon systems do not require physical ammunition, but they require a lot of electrical energy and can also work with explosive chemicals.
Promising developments in the field of microwave weapon technology
In January 2019, the Department of Defense issued a notice revealing that the U.S. Army plans to develop an ultrashort pulse laser system (USPL) to enhance its tactical capabilities and meet future warfare requirements. USPL is part of the Department’s plans to modernize the Army and, when completed, could become the most powerful laser-based weapons system ever.
However, the USPL is not the only initiative concerned with the development of microwave weapons. Here are some similar programs and microwave weapons that exist in reality:
- The U.S. Army’s Rapid Capabilities and Critical Technologies Office (RCCTO) has developed a Directed Energy-Maneuver Short-Range Air Defense (DEM SHORAD) system to shoot down enemy swarms of drones and other hostile UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles). This laser firing system will be installed in Stryker vehicles and by 2022 RCCTO plans to deliver at least four of them to the military.
- A report from 2018 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 set it on fire. Hailed as the laser equivalent of the AK-47, this non-lethal assault gun is called the ZKZM-500 and is intended to be used by the Chinese police and the army in future covert military operations. However, many defense experts have expressed doubts about the claims made by the Xian Institute of Optics and Precision Engineering regarding the range and laser shooting capabilities of the ZKZM-500.
- The European arms manufacturer MBDA is developing a laser weapon system called “Dragonfire” that could be used on the British Royal Navy warships. This new LDEW system (Laser-Directed Energy Weapons) could fire several thousand kilowatts of powered lasers and serve as a defense against drones and other enemy air units. The UK government recently also awarded $ 100 million in military contracts to companies such as Raytheon and Thales for the development of directional energy weapon systems.
- A video uploaded by the US Navy in May 2020 shows a successful laser weapon test conducted on a San Antonio-class transport ship USS Portland. During the test, a 150 kW powered laser weapon system shoots an energy beam at an AV flying in the sky, the target catches fire as soon as it comes into contact with the beam and is destroyed.
- India’s Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) is working on a classified project called Durga II, which is actually a 100-kilowatt, lightweight, directional energy system. The organization plans to design Durga II so that it can be used anywhere from land-based military vehicles to airplanes and naval warships.
Aside from these recent developments, countries like Russia, Australia, and Israel are also developing their own microwave-based laser weapon systems. Some of these systems have already been deployed, others are in the test or development phase.
Microwave weapons other than laser-based systems
An LRAD deployed on the USS Blue Ridge. Photo credit: Tucker M. Yates / Wikimedia Commons
Compared to traditional artillery, microwave weapons have many tactical advantages. For example, microwaves, when fired from a weapon, hit the target without being influenced by external factors such as wind, weather, inertia, gravity, etc. In addition, the enemy soldiers cannot see or hear approaching microwave shots unless they have special microwave sensors to detect them. In addition, 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 countries and defense companies spend millions of dollars developing efficient microwave weapons. However, these are not the only types of futuristic weapons that are actively being researched in the military field.
Other types of futuristic weapons
Sonic and ultrasonic weapons
These weapons emit excruciating sound waves that can cause pain, severe headaches, ear bleeding, eyeball vibrations, and even permanent hearing loss. Sonic cannons, used by police to control the crowd during a protest, are also an example of sonic weapons, operating on a frequency similar to that of microwaves. A sound system falls into the non-lethal weapon category and is sometimes referred to as a Long-Range Acoustic Device (LRAD).
Much like Han Solo’s blaster pistol, plasma weapons are capable of firing plasma bolts at the enemy. In physics, plasma is called the fourth state of matter, which is formed by free ionized electrons and which can also contain some other subatomic particles. They are used to stun, burn, or warn the target, but similar to sonic weapons, they are also known as non-lethal.
The Plasma Acoustic Shield System (PASS), developed by Stellar Photonics for the U.S. Army, is one such plasma-based weapon system that would be capable of firing plasma shock waves (both lethal and non-lethal) at the target.
Heat jet weapons
A DEW system capable of raising the surface temperature of a target and destroying the enemy’s electronic devices. It is designed for area security, harbor protection and crowd control. When a person is hit by a heat jet weapon, he or she may experience a burning sensation and severe pain in the skin.
The US military’s Active Denial System is a heat ray-based counterinsurgency weapon that can fire microwaves up to 1000 meters away and is used in both defensive and offensive field operations.
From laser-firing airplanes to ballless plasma rifles and vibration-generating sonic cannons, defense researchers are working on many crazy ideas for microwave weapons, but time will tell how many of them will become a reality.