The Air Force expects planes will be able to fire non-lethal microwave rays at enemy ground troops with the help of a new superconducting generator system developed at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base after about 25 years of research.
Heavy, inefficient generators have been a hurdle to the development of airborne microwave weapons, which create a disabling burning sensation.
Microwaves could be used to control large groups of enemy fighters without killing them or disable electronics-dependent enemy weapons, said Philip Coyle, senior adviser for the Center for Defense Information.
The Air Force is preparing to award a $22 million contract to a private contractor to construct and demonstrate the new electrical generating system by 2009.
"We finally have the materials where we're ready to build this generator," Lt. Col. JoAnn Erno, chief of the power division of Air Force Research Laboratory's Propulsion Directorate, said Monday.
Microwaves — high-powered electromagnetic beams that can rapidly heat water molecules — and other directed-energy weapons could bring advantages to the battlefield in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, where U.S. troops have had to deal with hostile but unarmed crowds as well as dangerous insurgents.
Aside from paralyzing potential attackers or noncombatants like a long-range stun gun, the weapons could disable the electronics of missiles and roadside bombs or even disable a vehicle in a high-speed chase, developers say. The weapons emit a pulse of energy and can destroy semiconductors with a surge of volts.
Erno said conventional generators, which have heavy copper coils, are large, heavy and less efficient in producing power than the superconducting generators. Planes carrying conventional generators would have to fly at low altitudes and be in danger of being shot down by small-arms fire, she said.
"We can't take those airborne," Erno said. "What we have to do from the Air Force side is to produce much smaller superconducting generators."
Powered by a turbine engine, the new generators are about the size of a small beer keg and designed to produce five megawatts of power.
The generators have lightweight metal foils coated with superconducting material that carry many times more current and are more efficient, making possible an electric power system strong enough for microwave weapons and light enough for airplanes.
Erno said the system would probably be used on cargo planes such as C-130s. With a superconducting generator, the system will weigh about half of its current 20,000 pounds, which is the equivalent of about eight Toyota Corollas.
"They've got something going there," said Ivan Oelrich, director of strategic security programs for the Federation of American Scientists, a private group dedicated to ending the arms race and avoiding the use of nuclear weapons. "What they're trying to do is doable."
However, Oelrich said that to operate a diesel engine to power the generator will require a lot of fuel, adding weight and cost to the operation.
"If you're going to use it continuously, then the fuel will be the big weight factor," he said. "To operate a thing like that requires a few tons of fuel per hour."
Oelrich also questioned whether the Air Force had considered a less efficient, but less expensive superconducting system. He said the proposed system could be expensive to maintain and might require multiple backup systems.
Coyle said it is not yet known how effective microwave weapons will be. For example, he said, it may take a lot of microwaves to disable just a few enemy weapons, and microwaves may not be effective in battling small numbers of insurgents in urban areas because the fighters hide and seek cover behind buildings.