With Kim Jong Un pushing aggressively to develop missiles that could hit the United States with nuclear warheads, pressure has been mounting on US officials to answer the threat. One effective countermeasure could lie in an obscure military lab in New Mexico.
It's called CHAMP, for Counter-electronics High Power Microwave Advanced Missile Project. James Fisher, spokesman for the Air Force Research Lab at Kirtland Air Force Base, said it's a high-powered microwave weapon that can be delivered on an air-launched cruise missile, deployed from an American bomber.
Fisher says the cruise missile with a CHAMP system strapped to it would fly into enemy airspace at low altitude, and send out strong pulses of electromagnetic energy. The enemy's electronic command-and-control systems would be jammed. Analysts say the cruise missile it's deployed on could then be splashed down at sea.
The Air Force says CHAMP was not developed specifically to counter the North Korean threat. But retired Gen. David Deptula, who once headed US Air Force intelligence, said the applications could be effective against North Korea.
Retired Air Force intelligence officer Col. Cedric Leighton went further, saying CHAMP could be a game-changer with North Korea.
"It would be very useful in the Korean theater because it wouldn't require the presence of significant numbers of ground forces," Leighton said. "It wouldn't require Special Operations forces. And it wouldn't require kinetic bombing attacks. ... In essence, what could happen is an attack can occur, and not a single person on the enemy side would lose a life."
Leighton said a CHAMP system could disable a North Korean missile on the launchpad or in flight.
Fisher said the Air Force tested the CHAMP system in 2012, at a testing range in Utah larger than the state of Delaware. Buildings were rigged with communications and other systems similar to what enemy militaries would have.
Mary Lou Robinson, who heads research and development of CHAMP at the Air Force Research Laboratory, told NBC News, "It absolutely did exactly what we thought it was going to do." Robinson said they had several target classes, and they "predicted with almost 100% accuracy" which systems would fail.
While CHAMP holds the promise of a nonlethal weapon against the North Koreans, skeptics say it has potentially dangerous drawbacks.
"The North Koreans would see many of these missiles flying in," says Jeffrey Lewis, an adjunct professor at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. "They would try to shoot them down. They're not actually going to know that they're armed with high-powered microwaves instead of, say, conventional explosives or even nuclear weapons."
CHAMP weapons are not currently operational. Neither Fisher, Robinson, nor other Air Force officials would say when the weapons could be deployed. But Leighton said in a crisis, "The CHAMP system could be deployed within days."
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