Japan to launch full-scale R&D on high power microwave weapons

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
The Defense Ministry building in Tokyo

The Defense Ministry will start full-scale research and development on high power microwave (HPM) weapons, which can disable an enemy’s military drones, from the 2022 fiscal year that begins in April, according to sources.

Enhancing the nation’s defense capabilities is the goal of introducing such equipment and technology that deal with the electromagnetic domain, which influences the phases of combat in modern warfare.

In daily life, microwaves are electromagnetic waves that can be used, for example, to heat up food. By applying this idea to an irradiating beam made up of powerful microwaves, it is possible to damage the electronic control system inside a drone.

In 2003 during the Iraq War, news reports said that U.S. forces used an HPM weapon on Iraq’s nationally run TV station. Such weapons allow electronic equipment to be disabled without affecting buildings or people. The U.S. Air Force has deployed HPM weapons since 2019, while China and Russia reportedly have been making progress on the development of these weapons.

China and Russia are putting their energy into developing smaller and more capable drones. It is difficult to forecast the arrival of such flying objects, as radar and other instruments have difficulty locating drones in low-altitude flight.

In anticipation of a saturation attack in which a large number of drones engage all at once, it is necessary to have the ability to respond to them instantaneously and simultaneously.

The Yomiuri Shimbun

“Establishing HPM technology is an urgent task,” said a senior Defense Ministry official.

The introduction of HPM technology is expected to significantly enhance the ability to intercept drones, becoming a game changer that will drastically alter the balance in military strength.

Specifically, HPM weapons have these special characteristics: hit targets at the speed of light, have a high accuracy rate, can easily change irradiation direction with high ability to deal with saturation attacks, and have low cost as there is no limit to how often it can fire, with power consumption the only consideration.

If such irradiation devices are mounted on vehicles, the HPM weapons can be mobile. Compared to having Air Self-Defense Force fighter jets scramble, they have the advantage of reducing the risk of casualties among personnel.

The ministry plans to work on a prototype over the next five years and has earmarked ¥7.2 billion in next year’s budget plan for that purpose.

If the HPM weapons can be put into practical use against drones, they could possibly even have a wider role such as for intercepting North Korean missiles.

In the future, these HPM weapons are expected to complement the existing two-stage missile defense system, which uses SM-3 interceptors on Aegis destroyers and ground-to-air PAC-3 guided missiles.