AESA Radars Used As 'Death Ray' Weapons?

According to Aviation Week, the Pentagon is now developing active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars that could be used as weapons. A bizarre historical twist to this story is that in 1934, a rumor was started to the effect that Nazi Germany had developed a death ray based on radar. Physicist Robert Watson-Watt was asked to check on the feasibility of such a weapon. He quickly determined that it was unlikely, but that using radio waves to locate incoming bombers might be a real possibility. By 1937, three stations were ready, with more to come; this was a key element in winning the Battle of Britain during WWII.


(AESA radar)

Now it appears that AESA radars may have a weapons component. AESA radars are comprised of many small transmit/receive modules that each scan a fixed area; the antenna does not need to move to scan an area. They have an extremely fast scanning rate, higher range, multiple target engagement and can act as a jamming device.

Some of the airborne AESA radars... use thousands of small transmitters/receivers, each a couple of inches square, that allow the array to conduct many tasks simultaneously. Those include detection of small, even stealthy targets, tracking and communications... and "jamming"... Possible AESA techniques for attacking another radar could include burning through the target radar's antenna side-lobes, filter side-lobes, or other known features of the target system. Radar specialists suggest it is reasonable to suppose this capability is already available to some fielded systems...

[Airborne radar weapon development] appear[s] to be focused on cruise missiles and self-defense against anti-radiation, home-on-jam and air-to-air missiles. The radars seem particularly effective against the latter categories because energy available to focus on the approaching missile increases as an inverse square as distance decreases.

High Power Microwaves (HPM) are also in the process of development as weapons. HPMs generate very short bursts of energy across a wider range of frequencies, while AESA produces longer, more directed bursts of energy:

While HPM produces higher peak power, AESA often generates greater average power. That produces different operational and targeting strategies. For example, Raytheon's [HPM-based] airport protection system uses infrared sensors to find the target and determine where to focus its beam. It also produces effects at longer range, possibly as much as 100 mi., because it produces powerful pulses of energy. AESA radar has the built-in ability to find and track a target, so it can be held on the target for the necessary additional microseconds needed to create its weapons effect.

It was a British writer, H.G. Wells, who first suggested the general idea of "death rays" - namely, the heat ray in his 1898 novel War of the Worlds. The idea for radar was suggested at a very early date by science fiction writer Hugo Gernsback - he called it an actinoscope in his remarkable 1911 story Ralph 124c 41 +:

A pulsating polarized ether wave, if directed on a metal object can be reflected in the same manner as a light ray is reflected from a bright surface… By manipulating the entire apparatus like a searchlight, waves would be sent over a large area.
(Read more about Hugo Gernsback's actinoscope)

Update 22-Mar-2020: As far as I know, the earliest use of the term "death ray" can be found in the 1903 novel The World Masters by George Griffith; see the entry for death-ray. End update.

If you are interested in energy beam weapons, take a look at the MTHEL - Mobile Tactical High Energy Laser under development by the US Army. Read more about the 'death ray' story at Military.com; thanks to an alert reader for suggesting this story. The original story in Aviation Week requires paid registration, unfortunately.

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 10/14/2005)

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