Artist's illustration of a satellite under attack by a directed-energy weapon. Photo: Facebook / Defense One

In a space shot across America’s bow, Chinese scientists have reportedly developed an ultra-high powered microwave device that can potentially jam satellite communications or damage sensitive satellite electronics.

The device, known as the Relativistic Klystron Amplifier (RKA), is a high-power microwave (HPM) source that is widely used in high-power radars, new accelerators and new communication systems because of its advantages in high-power, high-efficiency, stable-phase and stable-amplitude of output power.

According to Sichuan-based Chinese researchers, the device could generate a 5-megawatt short pulse in the Ka-band, a satellite frequency increasingly used by businesses and the military.

Ka-band systems are especially useful for military applications since they are built with smaller, steerable beams for high-capacity density, which adds some enhanced jam resistance for platforms while supporting significant uplink data rates for programs such as military intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and other data-rich applications.

Previous Chinese RKA prototypes only achieved a few hundred kilowatts of power in the Ka-band, but a substantial redesign by Chinese researchers allowed it to generate 501 megawatts in an experiment, with computer modeling suggesting even more room for improvement.

This gives the device the potential to be a high-power anti-satellite microwave weapon, generating 100 times more energy than most communication devices.

China’s RKA development has spurred certain concerns that it might be used as a ground-based weapons system against US satellites and drones. Yet a ground-based microwave weapon capable of hitting satellites would require more than a gigawatt of power to effectively jam or damage modern satellites and thus is impractical.

However, RKA devices can be readily mounted on satellites for offensive and defensive purposes. In an offensive role, an RKA can be used as a source of high-power microwaves aimed at enemy satellites for the purpose of burning out their sensitive electronics.

In a defensive role, a satellite-mounted RKA can be used to detect an unusual rise in electric currents and absorb targeted high-power microwaves before they can cause any damage.

Adding an extra device aboard a satellite, however, may affect its performance, with the device itself potentially overheating and burning up under intense microwave radiation.

Apart from microwave weapons, China has also developed a satellite-mountable solid-state pulse laser capable of generating a megawatt of laser light and fire for 100 times a second for half an hour without overheating in space.

At Airshow China 2018, CASIC showcased a vehicle-based laser weapon called LW-30, which could use a directional-emission high-energy laser to quickly intercept many kinds of aerial targets. File photo.

Such a laser is capable of dazzling satellite cameras, or even permanently blinding satellites. Upon testing, the device reportedly generated a beam lasting only 5 nanoseconds but it was powerful enough to permanently blind human beings or vaporize target surfaces.

Recent technological breakthroughs in laser technology have made such miniaturization possible. This includes the invention of a new cooling system made of copper and indium, the latter a rare earth metal of which China has the world’s largest reserves.

While China has denied that this laser device is a directed energy weapon, bigger versions of the system can generate shock waves capable of tearing apart metal or composite materials on a fast-moving target. It can also create a cloud of electrically-charged particles that can damage sensors in a missile’s guiding system.

Directed energy weapons such as microwaves and lasers use concentrated electromagnetic rather than kinetic energy to incapacitate, damage, disable or destroy enemy equipment, facilities, and/or personnel.

They also have several desirable attributes, such as instantaneous engagement, high shot capacity limited only by electrical power supply, high difficulty of intercept, precision targeting and low cost per shot.

Interest in directed energy weapons started during the Cold War, where the US and old Soviet Union competitively raced to generate high-power electromagnetic fields capable of damaging each other’s sensitive military electronics.

Some defense analysts argue that such weapons could mark the next revolution in warfare. Over the past two decades, directed energy weapons have evolved from laboratory curiosities to mature weapons systems, with microwaves and lasers being increasingly used in military operations.

Directed energy weapons are expected to be equipped on combat platforms and deployed alongside conventional weapons by 2025, with laser weapons tipped to receive the bulk of research and development followed by microwave weapons.

However, such weapons still must overcome various technical hurdles such as atmospheric absorption, scattering, and turbulence. Lasers are also limited to line-of-sight targets, which may limit their deployment in certain situations.