The U.S. has built, flown, pointed and triggered a missile designed specifically to carry a directed-energy weapon. That payload, expected to be operational soon, will be able to disrupt, shut down, spoof or damage electrical systems, but little has been revealed about the project.

However, various clues have provided substantive details about the design and concept of operations (conops) for the new missile and its exotic payload. They come from Boeing officials, industry specialists and U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory sponsors who are working on the Counter-electronics High-power Microwave Advanced Missile Project (Champ).

An illustration created by Boeing shows the missile being dropped by a B-52, which means at least some versions of the design are air-launched. However, the directed-energy, high-power microwave (HPM) payload also is designed for integration into land, sea or other air-based platforms for operational flexibility.

As to the warhead's anti-electronics capabilities, “the whole radio frequency spectrum is viable as a target,” says Keith Coleman, Boeing's program manager for Champ since 2009. The systems will be tailored to the target defined by the customer. The effects will depend on the frequency and effective radiated power (ERP). There are many options.

Two short video clips produced by the Air Force—without sound or annotation—indicate the conops and effects. An animation shows a cruise missile flying at low altitude firing beams of HPM from side- and downward-pointed apertures at high-rise office buildings in a city. The lights go off as the buildings are attacked. An actual video shows a room with about a half-dozen desktop computers functioning with data on the screens. Suddenly all the computers go black, with one momentarily turning back on and then off again.

That still leaves two unanswered questions—is Champ stealthy and reusable?

The notional airframe shown in Boeing's drawings is relatively small with compressed carriage wings that extend after launch. While Boeing's artist concepts are not exact representations of the missile, they do resemble the company's cruise missile designs that are similarly air-launched and have low-radar-signature designs to penetrate enemy air defenses.

“Any of these systems can be made to be recoverable or otherwise,” Coleman says. “There are many proven methods of recovering vehicles from the lightweights to the heavier designs.”

Champ was first flown on May 17 at the Utah Test and Training Range at Hill AFB. The missile was successfully pointed at a series of targets to confirm that it could be controlled and timed to fire a focused beam that would minimize—and perhaps eliminate—collateral damage to nearby electronic devices. The software used in the test was identical to that required to trigger the HPM weapon warhead.

Cruise missiles are valued for their intrinsic low radar cross-section that comes with small size, and they can be shaped and treated with radar-absorbing or reflecting materials. That is why they are the primary tools for breaking down enemy air defenses on the first day of any conflict. A Champ-like design would be sure to have the same operational requirements and need for stealth. Nonetheless, HPM payloads are not restricted to Champ.

“Any unmanned aircraft would be a candidate for these types of systems,” Coleman says. However, “Boeing built the Champ system to be easily transitioned to [alternative platforms]. From the start we designed it with as many features as possible so that we would need minimum adjustments.”

Program officials will not address the question of whether Champ is associated with the Air Force's Long-Range Strike (LRS) program. Air Force and aerospace industry officials have said that directed-energy weapons support and electronic attack will be supplied to LRS by adjunct, unmanned aircraft.

“Champ is a template for future HPM programs,” Coleman says. “There has never been this type of system with this kind of power out on any vehicle of any sort before.”

Coleman contends there would be little difficulty putting the HPM weapons technology on a smaller or larger airframe.

“The HPM system itself is a very flexible integration,” he says. If smaller, you get less ERP and if bigger you get more. But if you are smaller, you can probably get closer [to the target without being detected]. I absolutely think there is a desire to go to a bigger airframe. ERP is dependent on the size of the aperture. The bigger the aperture, the more power you can produce and the more standoff you get.”

The initial version of Champ is designed for a relatively small, unmanned aircraft, Coleman says, so “that was part of the difficulty of getting everything to fit.”

Boeing's Phantom Works built the missile airframe and the weapon pointing system, drawing on its experience with advanced weapons, cruise missiles and unmanned strike aircraft in conjunction with the Air Force Research Laboratory.

Coleman worked on the Calcm and Jassm cruise missiles, the F-15E and F/A-18E/F strike fighters and X-45A/C unmanned combat aircraft projects that prepared him for leading a very specialized team that integrated the sophisticated directed-energy weapon payload into the unmanned platform. There are about 25 core members from the various companies involved in the program providing missile and aircraft program experience.

Raytheon's newly acquired New Mexico-based Ktech division built the HPM warhead. The combination of airframe and warhead are to be demonstrated during a series of flight tests planned to cluster around the end of the current program in July 2012.

Raytheon recently acquired Ktech because it is making plans to build a series of HPM warheads for virtually all the missile models on its various production lines. A few years ago Raytheon planners said they were “betting the farm” on HPM pushing aside lasers as the most tactically useful and least demanding directed-energy weapon for next-generation combat operations. Boeing, in a complementary mode, has been designing its unmanned combat aircraft designs to carry reusable, multi-shot HPM weapons.