Here come the “death rays”: Japan builds microwave weapons

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Asian death ray race? Japan builds microwave weapons: The skies over Asia could soon erupt with deadly energy beams.

The Japanese Ministry of Defense will begin full-scale development of high-power microwave weapons (HPM), according to Japan Yomiuri Shimbun Newspaper. The report comes days after Chinese media reported it China is developing laser weapons for the stealth fighter J-20 Mighty Dragon.

“The Defense Ministry will begin extensive research and development of high-powered microwave weapons (HPM) capable of incapacitating an enemy’s military drones starting in fiscal year 2022 beginning in April,” Japanese officials told Yomiuri Shimbum.

“The ministry plans to work on a prototype over the next five years and has allocated 7.2 billion yen for it [US$62.5 million] in the budget for next year for this purpose.”

Countries like the United States, China and Russia are developing directed energy weapons, including laser and microwave radio frequency based systems. In particular, they are seen as a cheaper alternative to launching drones or missiles than kinetic weapons like missiles and cannons. For example, swarms of drones — hordes of small drones armed with explosives — could easily overwhelm kinetic weapons that a hundred drones can’t engage fast enough, and would run out of ammo if they tried.

Microwave weapons can “hit targets at the speed of light, have a high accuracy rate, can easily change irradiation direction and are capable of dealing with saturation attacks, and are inexpensive as there is no limit to how many times they can fire with power consumption being the only consideration” , Yomiuri Shimbum remarked.

“Compared to Air Self-Defense Force fighter jets, they have the advantage of reducing the risk of personnel casualties.”

However, proper energy weapons have their limitations. Weather conditions such as rain and fog can limit their performance and range, as can countermeasures such as blackout agents. Size, weight, and power (SWaP) requirements have been an issue for directed energy weapons since the Cold War.

Nonetheless, a breakthrough in HPM-based missile defense would be welcome in Japan, which faces multiple missile-armed potential enemies. North Korea regularly tests ballistic missiles in waters near Japan and would likely attack Japan should a second Korean War break out. China has a vast arsenal of ballistic missiles that could be used against Japan if there is a conflict over Japanese-held islands claimed by both nations, or if Japan supports Taiwan against a Chinese invasion.

According to Yomiuri Shimbum, HPM will complement Japanese missile defense systems that use missiles to knock down other missiles. “These HPM weapons are designed to complement the existing two-tier missile defense system, which uses SM-3 interceptors on Aegis destroyers and PAC-3 surface-to-air guided missiles.”

But what is particularly intriguing is the prospect of a directed energy arms race in Asia. Last month, China’s state-sponsored Global Times claimed that the J-20 stealth fighter – the pride of Chinese military aviation – could be armed with laser weapons. However, the South China tomorrow post reported that “China’s ambitions to equip its most advanced fighter jet with hi-tech weapons such as lasers or particle beams may be thwarted by its underpowered engines.”

J-20 stealth fighter.

A veteran writer and expert on defense and national security, Michael Pick is a contributing writer for Forbes Magazine. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy Magazine, Defense News, The National Interest and other publications. He can be found on Twitter and linkedin.

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