November 1, 2012

Sci-Fi Comes to the Metals Industry

Electromagnetic weaponry sparks interest of defense forces worldwide.

 A crane is used to maneuver an Electromagnetic Railgun (EMRG) prototype. The EMRG is a long-range weapon that launches projectiles using electricity instead of chemical propellants and is under development by the Navy for use aboard ships.

They may look like radar equipment or science fiction-charged ray guns to the untrained eye. Electromagnetic (EM) weaponry is a growing presence in the U.S. military arsenal and therefore a new, very real market for the metals industry.

Despite political controversy and congressional resistance to funding such projects, the Defense Department’s Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate unveiled an EM weapon called the Active Denial System (ADS) for crowd control and general perimeter security just last March, and posted a video of it on YouTube.

Although the U.S. Armed Forces are understandably closed-mouthed about the various EM weapons they have mustered for use in wartime, there is no doubt they exist. Military EM weapons variations have already been photographed and chronicled by The Economist, the Armed Forces Press Service and Wired magazine.

How EM Weaponry Works

For an unveiling demonstration, one EM weapon was mounted on a Humvee and another on an extended truck. The weapon fired a man-sized heat beam into a crowd of protestors. (For the demonstration, the protestors were volunteers.)

The weapon heats water molecules in the human body, creating such vast discomfort that people instinctively, and without exception, run away from it. However, the silent, odorless and invisible wave only penetrates 1/64th of an inch into human skin and corneas. According to the weapon’s designers, the limited penetration is temporary and the exposure is non-lethal, leaving no lasting effects on the body.

The weapon’s designers say this “active denial system” and other EM weapons have significant potential for combat applications. Some use high-intensity radio waves to disrupt electronics while others use microwaves (not the actual appliance you find in the kitchen) to disrupt human brain waves. Depending on the wave intensity, such a weapon can be fatal to humans and leave electronics temporarily or permanently useless.

Another type of these weapons, called a railgun, fires high-energy projectiles, much like traditional weapons do, but with far greater impact. Some estimates indicate that railguns fire a projectile at twice the speed of today’s anti-armor shells and those projectiles need only be one-fifth the size of those used today. In addition, a weapon called a Chemical Oxygen Iodine Laser program, is designed to cause physical damage to an object, like an incoming missile, by shooting it with intense heat to create structural failure. This one came out of a Defense Department program with another tongue twister name: The Airborne Laser Test Bed (ALTB) program.

“We’re fast approaching the limits of our ability to hit maneuvering pieces of metal in the sky with other maneuvering pieces of metal,” Rear Admiral Nevin Carr, head of the Office of Naval Research, told Wired magazine.

The Market Outside the United States

For much the same reason, other countries are also ramping up their interest in these high-tech machines, with China and North Korea ranked high among them. China, for instance, is keenly interested in using electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapons to “fry your computers. Especially if you happen to live in Taiwan,” according to government reports unearthed by the National Security Archive, a highly regarded investigative journalism center, research institute on international affairs, and library and archive of declassified U.S. documents, reported by Wired. According to the Washington Times and Herald Sun, North Korea is reportedly taking similar aim at South Korea, and the Russians are also said to have an active EM development program.

Currently, there are no known battlefield-ready weapons of this type in any country. Rather, devices made of metals of varying types exist in the prototype stage, beyond research and development, and are not yet ready for mass production. Still, there is ongoing interest and a significant amount of money being spent around the world on their research and development.

An engineer makes final checks
prior to maneuvering the
EMRG prototype into
place for government evaluation.

Most of the EM counter-weapons being developed are variations of a Faraday cage, described by The Economist as “a shield of conductive material that stops electromagnetic radiation penetration.

Such shields need not be heavy. Nickel- and copper-coated polyester mesh is a good starting point. Metalized textiles—chemically treated for greater conductivity—are also used.” These may present new opportunities for traditional weaponry producers and their metal supply chain if they are willing to adapt to a new market.

Working Around Politics and Budgets

No surprise, gridlocked Washington politics are making EM development a bit chaotic. There are plenty of lawmakers who are convinced this government-funded R&D is a waste of time and money. The U.S. Senate, for example, killed the Navy’s railgun and free electron laser project last year. The Navy still continued with both projects and is hoping a newly elected Congress will fund the efforts going forward.

Boeing and the U.S. Air Force completed their first flight test in 2011 of the Counter-electronics High-powered Microwave Advanced Missile Project (CHAMP) as a means to disable or destroy enemy electronics. But, CHAMP only cost $38 million, which is chump change in the $646 billion (in 2012) annual defense budget. As a result, Congress didn’t blink, even though the money covered demos rather than actual deliverables.

By comparison, the Defense Department’s Denial System for crowd control has cost $120 million and counting, according to The Daily Mail. The money for development and production of this class of weapons is also still available. The Daily Mail also reported that the ADS prototype was “cancelled in 2008 but deployed in Afghanistan two years later.”

The conclusion? Dealing with a dicey Congress and uncertain budget prospects is never fun. But, there will be hot pockets, so to speak, in that budget even with reduced military spending. EM weaponry may well be one of those.

Pam Baker has written hundreds of articles in leading technology, business and finance publications. She has also authored several analytical studies on technology, eight books and an award-winning documentary on paper-making.