Asia Defense

The PLA’s Potential Breakthrough in High-Power Microwave Weapons

Though details are scarce, recent Chinese reports hint at a major advance in HPM technology.

By Elsa B. Kania for
The PLA’s Potential Breakthrough in High-Power Microwave Weapons
Credit: DoD photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley/Released

Chinese scientists have reportedly achieved unexpected success in their development of a high-power microwave (HPM) weapon. This promising form of directed energy weapon combines “soft” and “hard kill” capabilities through the disruption or even destruction of enemy electronics systems. Such a powerful “new concept weapon” possesses unique advantages, including its potential speed, range, accuracy, flexibility, and reusability.

The PLA’s future HPM weapons could have multiple defensive and offensive functions that would enhance its combat capabilities. In the near term, the PLA’s probable employment of this HPM could be as a ship-borne anti-missile system or to reinforce China’s air defense systems. Potentially, such a weapon system would undermine the efficacy of even the most advanced U.S. missiles, such as the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) currently under development. Its likely applications could also include its use as an anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon or incorporation with missiles in order to overcome enemy air defenses. Once operationalized, this new weapon could thus contribute to China’s anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities.

The PLA’s apparent breakthrough in HPM weapons reflects a track record of consistent progress over the course of decades of concentrated efforts. Given the limitations of the available information, it is difficult to compare the extent of U.S. and Chinese progress in this domain. Until the past several years, the U.S. military’s 50 or so years of research on HPM weapons could be dismissed as an apparent dead end. Only recently, the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory successfully developed and is preparing to field the Counter-electronics High-Powered Microwave Advanced Missile Project (CHAMP), which could target an enemy’s electronics from an aircraft or missile. While the full extent of current U.S. efforts is unknown, the PLA’s reported advance in the development of HPM weapons could indicate that Chinese capabilities may have the potential to keep pace with those of the United States in this disruptive technology.

Reports of a Major Breakthrough

In January, Huang Wenhua, deputy director of the Northwest Institute of Nuclear Technology, received a first prize National Science and Technology Progress Award for his research on directed energy. This prize was evidently awarded for his development of a HPM weapon, given his extensive research on the topic and accounts of his remarks at the time. According to Huang, the system in question was initially tested successfully in November 2010 in northwest China, in what he referred to as the Huahai exercise. By his characterization, the completion of the exercise, verification, and experimentation is a “pioneering” achievement, since comparable advances had yet to be achieved elsewhere in the world. Huang also highlighted that this “disruptive technology,” in which a “major breakthrough” has occurred, would increase China’s capabilities in future electronic information confrontation.

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At this point, the actual capabilities and current status of this weapon system remain unknown. In an operational context, its efficacy would depend on a number of factors, including its output power, effective range, firing rate, and power requirements. However, Huang’s frequent publications and patents indicate continuing progress. Based on his prior writings, this HPM weapon could be intended for initial employment as a ship-borne anti-missile system. For instance, in 2009, ahead of its initial test, Huang co-authored a paper focused on the utility of HPM weapons against anti-ship missiles. The authors noted that HPM weapons could be used to degrade and damage the electronics of an incoming missile, interfering with, for instance, its data link, GPS receivers, and other guidance mechanisms.

Contextualizing Chinese Advances in HPM Weapons

This reported breakthrough seemingly reflects the success of China’s long-term agenda for the research and development of HPM weapons. Since Chinese efforts to create directed energy weapons date back to the 1970s and have intensified since the 1990s, this apparent advance reflects the results of long-term research at a number of critical institutions and the consistent funding for their work. Throughout his career, over the course of nearly 20 years in this field, Huang Wenhua has been instrumental in research and development of HPM technology.

Since the early 1990s, Huang has engaged in research related to HPM weapons, under the aegis of the Northwest Institute of Nuclear Technology’s Key Laboratory of High-Power Microwave Technology. The National High-Technology Research and Development Plan or “863 Plan” has provided extensive funding to this research agenda, including through a subsidiary fund focused on HPM technology, with the guidance of its X07 expert group, of which Huang served as the director.

Future Prospects for the PLA’s HPM Weapons

Evidently, the PLA’s pursuit of HPM weapons has remained a consistent priority that will likely continue to receive high-level support at the level of the Central Military Commission (CMC). Notably, Liu Guozhi, who recently became the director of the new CMC Science and Technology Commission, previously served as the commander of the PLA’s Nuclear Test Base in Xinjiang and the director of the Northwest Institute of Nuclear Technology. Liu himself has received multiple awards for his own research on HPM weapons and pulsed power, initially collaborating with Huang on this research agenda. As such, he will likely prove a pivotal figure in the PLA’s efforts to advance this technological dimension of military innovation.

Looking forward, the PLA could continue to achieve significant progress in HPM weapons, along with multiple forms of directed energy weapons, seeking to rival U.S. technological advances. In response to the Third Offset, the PLA has only intensified its focus on these “new concept weapons,” while also developing countermeasures to U.S. directed energy weapons. Although it is difficult to evaluate their future trajectory and likely timeframe at this point, the eventual fielding of the PLA’s HPM weapons will serve as a critical force multiplier for its war-fighting capabilities.

Elsa Kania is an analyst at the Long Term Strategy Group. Elsa is a graduate of Harvard College and was a 2014–2015 Boren Scholar in Beijing, China.