China is developing a hypersonic missile armed with a non-nuclear warhead. Its warhead is designed to create an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) to target an adversary’s electrical grids and disrupt its power supply, thereby causing massive economic losses.
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This project, being spearheaded by scientists at the China Academy of Launch Vehicle technology, could be a cause of worry for the US. According to the reports, this missile could cruise at six times the speed of sound and cover around 3,000 kilometers in 25 minutes.
It is poignant to note that research into the electromagnetic effects of nuclear weapons on communication and electrical systems dates back to the 1950s. Global military powers like the US, Russia, China, and North Korea have since made strides in the research and development of EMP weapons systems and the addition to this new-age hypersonic technology race may give Beijing an edge over its arch-rival, the US.
How Does It Work?
EMP blasts were initially associated with nuclear warheads. The simple premise behind this was the emission of a significant amount of radiation. Subsequent developments such as the US Air Force’s (USAF) High-Powered Microwave Advanced Missile Project (CHAMP) challenged this notion.
CHAMP creates EMP explosions by leveraging a microwave generator. Chinese scientists seem to have expanded on this American concept by adding a chemical explosive warhead to generate an EMP blast.
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According to SCMP, the chemical explosion would compress an electrically charged magnet known as a ‘flux compression generator’, which would convert the shock energy to short but extremely powerful bursts of microwaves. The missile is expected to harness the intensity of the heat which is a byproduct of the hypersonic speed.
This is to be used to generate electricity which in turn powers the flux compression generation. This might lead the missile to generate significant electricity without the need for batteries.
These missiles would utilize super-capacitors that boast a power density 20 times more than batteries. Furthermore, these capacitors could be charged on the go by leveraging energy from the heat-to-electricity generator, the SCMP report said. Chinese researchers claim that this approach could potentially offload a bulk of the energy within 10 seconds.
This is suitable for instantaneous discharge to cause EMP damage. Chinese researchers said that the missile would be enveloped in a cloud which would safeguard it from the radar. Air molecules are ionized by the heat while the object travels through the air at hypervelocity. This results in a screen of plasma developing over the surface.
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The hypersonic missile is expected to convert the heat from the environment into electricity and use it to power multiple plasma generators located in various parts of the missile’s body.
According to EMP weapon expert, Peter Vincent Pry, these weapons can be fired only once. This kind of NNEMP warhead is a ‘one-shot’ weapon because it is explosive-driven, unlike the USAF CHAMP that uses a microwave generator for its NNEMP warhead that can generate many EMP bursts, or project a continuous EMP field on the ground as the missile cruises, Pry told Forbes.
Pry highlighted that NNEMP weapons technology has undergone changes in recent times owing to the advent of more potent generators. This can be carried out by lowering the size and weight profiles which may empower it to be delivered by Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), hypersonic vehicles and cruise missiles.
The US electrical grid could be knocked out by a Chinese EMP weapon or even those launched by smaller nations like Tehran and Pyongyang.
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It can also damage the communication system as the EMP radiation can burn out electronic devices within a 2-km radius. However, there is another thought which believes that threats from EMP weapons are blown out of proportion.
These weapons have evolved from their nuclear origins and have transitioned towards the non-nuclear realm. The advent of non-nuclear EMP weapons makes it more convenient when compared to nuclear weapons, however, their lethality remains ambiguous.
US Opens Hypersonic Factory
Earlier this week, American aerospace giant Lockheed Martin announced the opening of a 65,000-square-foot production facility for hypersonic systems. This is being carried out in close coordination with the United States Department of Defense (DOD) The facility is housed in the state of Alabama.
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Hypersonic systems will be developed for both the US Army and Navy at this facility. The addition of this mammoth facility is likely to foster competition in the development of hypersonic missiles amongst great powers. Particularly between Washington and Beijing over gaining supremacy in the Indo-Pacific.
The EurAsian Times had reported that the US plans to add hypersonic weapons to their B-1B Lancer aircraft that are currently stationed at Dyess Air Force Base. This will essentially turn the B-1 into a ‘missile truck’.
It has been confirmed that the modified B-1 bomber will act as the launch platform for boost-glide vehicles as well as air-breathing missiles.
This hints towards the potential utilization of the AGM-183A Air-launched Rapid-Response Weapon and the Hypersonic Air-Breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC), respectively. Boeing officials highlighted how the project will enhance the existing B-1 fleet, keeping the B-1 mission active till the Air Force transitions to the B-21 Raider.
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Until the development of the B-21 is complete, the B-1 bomber will be upgraded and lined up with hypersonic missiles. This sustained development of hypersonic technology sees arch-rivals US and China go head-to-head in the “21st century Cold War”.
Amid this hypersonic race between Washington and Beijing, it is too early to predict who will have a clear edge. However, China’s new EMP weapon could cause some temporary damage to the US on the economic front using what is known as ‘gray zone warfare’ tactics.
It’s worth recalling how suspected Chinese hackers caused a massive power outage in Mumbai, bringing India’s financial capital to a grinding halt for several hours, in October last year.
- Aritra Banerjee is a defense journalist who has worked in both online and print media. He has laid an emphasis on issues related to military human resources, tactical psychology, military-media relations, professional military education, and combat fitness. He can be reached on email: [email protected]
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