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Defence insiders are pushing a nonlethal microwave missile that could stop North Korea's launches in their tracks

Alex Lockie
  • Military and government officials are pushing a nonlethal missile that could be able to shut down a North Korean missile launch in its tracks.
  • The missile uses readily available technology, but politicians have criticised the Pentagon for being slow to adopt it and systems like it.
  • While the missile may have advantages over traditional ones, it could still massively escalate tensions with North Korea if used.

The White House has been informed of a newly developed cruise missile that proponents say could knock out North Korean missile launches in their tracks without killing anyone, according to NBC News.

The missile, a Boeing AGM-86B air-launched cruise missile with a Counter-electronics High-power Microwave Advanced Missile Project - or Champ - payload, launches off of planes just like the nuclear variant commonly found on B-52s.

But instead of a nuclear payload, the Champ payload fires microwave pulses that have successfully shut down electronics in multistory buildings in previous tests.

David Deptula, a retired US Air Force general who ran the US's air war in Iraq, told NBC's "Nightly News" that the new missile could "quite possibly" shut down a North Korean missile on a launch pad.

"Command and control centres are filled with electronic infrastructure which is highly vulnerable to high-powered microwaves," Deptula said.

Politicians say the Pentagon doesn't like change

Hwasong 15 launcher

Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich, one of several civil and government officials who support the Champ system and spoke to NBC, said that the missile hadn't been accepted or widely deployed because of trouble within the Pentagon.

"The challenges are less technical and more mental," said Heinrich, who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee. Heinrich referred to a "tendency in the Pentagon is to try and perfect something," like existing missile defences and weapons rather than employ a new technique.

Heinrich's apparent frustration with the Pentagon was echoed by Rep. Duncan Hunter, a Republican on the House Armed Services Committee. Hunter said last month that it was "hard to get things through" to the Defence Department that were "doable, that are easy, that are cheap, that are efficient and that already exist, because that makes nobody happy."

Hunter blamed a broken defence industrial complex for the difficulties in adopting new technologies.

"There's not retired general that works for Company A that says, 'I would like to do that thing that costs no money and it doesn't get me a contract,'" Hunter said, according to Inside Defence. "No one says that."

B-1B Lancer

Champ is an interesting option, not a silver bullet

But while the Champ system represents advantages over existing missile defence that waits until after a missile has launched, exited the atmosphere, and separated into possibly several warheads, it's not without disadvantages.

The Champ system has to get close to its targets before knocking them down, which means violating North Korean airspace, which could be taken as an act of war.

Additionally, if North Korea spotted the incoming cruise missile, which looks exactly like a nuclear-capable cruise missile, it may respond automatically regardless of the missiles' nonlethal nature.

Military equipment has redundant wiring and insulation to harden it against electronic warfare and attacks like the Champ, so the system likely needs more work before it can be certified as capable of shutting down a missile launch, if it could ever achieve such a thing.

For now, NBC reports, officials have briefed the White House on the Champ system and its availability. Whether it fits into President Donald Trump's "maximum pressure" strategy against North Korea remains to be seen.

Watch a video explainer on Champ: