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Since humans have bent electricity to war, there has been a hunt for a special weapon that renders the technology particularly useless. Lurking in the annals of weapon design, and periodically re-emerging as a novel solution to some new machine, exist tools that target electronics, and electronics only.
Early in July, Russian media described a weapon that roughly fits into this tempo, using the phrase “EMP cannon.” EMP, or electromagnetic pulse, is a real, observable phenomenon, but the primary way to produce the effect at scale is to use a nuclear weapon. When the nuke is detonated low to the ground, an electromagnetic pulse is one effect of many, limited in range and whose effect is largely overshadowed by the fire and death of the nuclear blast. When the nuke is detonated at high altitude, in the lower reaches of space, the pulse can travel quite a distance, though the effect is mitigated by the hardening of second-strike nuclear weapons and the almost certain nuclear retaliation that would follow.
This Russian EMP-cannon is neither of those effects, which makes the moniker vexing. Instead, the weapon as described more closely resembles microwave guns, a kind of directed energy weapon that’s seeing modern usage as an anti-drone tool.
In that sense, the weapon can be seen as “an extension of Russia’s pledge to develop breakthrough capabilities to counter what they perceive as the current Western overmatch in hi-tech and [Precision-Guided Munition] weapons,” says Samuel Bendett, adviser to CNA Russia Program who specializes in Russian unmanned military systems.
Creating a directed energy weapon that can specifically disable drones is one way to leap-frog into the future of war, as human-piloted and robotic aircraft look to contest skies filled with hostile machines. TASS notes that such a weapon is expected to be incorporated in the remotely piloted version of any sixth-generation fighters produced.
“The cannons as described would also fit into Russia’s overall counter-drone research, development, testing, and evaluations,” says Bendett, a CNAS Adjunct Senior Fellow who researches applications of Russian military unmanned system and AI. “This work is carried out as an extension of Russia’s counter-drone lessons learned from its Syria experience, as well as part of the defense against Western high-altitude drones that currently conduct surveillance missions near Russian borders.”
Whatever the nature of the anti-electronics weapon actually being developed, the future of war is likely to see far more new energy weapons, put to familiar use.
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