By Kevin Robinson-Avila / Journal Staff Writer
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The Air Force Research Laboratory at Kirtland Air Force Base has turned its massive MaxPower microwave defense system over to the Army for new rounds of research and development that could eventually lead to battlefield deployment of the vehicle-mounted weapon.
The system, which the AFRL built to destroy improvised explosive devices, will now be housed at New Mexico Tech’s Energetic Materials Research and Testing Center near Socorro. The center includes a 40-square-mile field laboratory that the university has used for explosives research and testing for government and private clients for more than 60 years.
The Army’s Armament, Research, Development and Engineering Center, or ARDEC, took over MaxPower this week. It held a joint ceremony with AFRL and NM Tech officials Friday morning to commemorate its arrival in Socorro.
NM Tech will help ARDEC re-purpose MaxPower for more battlefield uses against explosive hazards, said Carlos Romero, the university’s associate director for research and economic development. “ARDEC will look at different battlefield scenarios for real-world applications to go beyond IEDs and mitigate or even eliminate other types of threats,” Romero said. “Apart from the testing range, we have facilities, ordinances, technology and expertise to assist ARDEC.”
NM Tech’s research and testing center has generated about $27 million annually from contracts in recent years. The university has no contract with ARDEC now, just a partnership to make its infrastructure and human resources available. But in the future, the Army could employ it to set up test scenarios in Socorro and at the Playas Range and Training Center in southern New Mexico, Romero said.
The MaxPower system packs a full gigawatt of concentrated electromagnetic power into an armored truck. That’s one billion times the power of an average home microwave oven, allowing the vehicle to instantly destroy IEDs as it cruises through battle zones.
AFRL’s Directed Energy Directorate built the system for $50 million from 2007 to 2012, then deployed it for nine months of testing in Afghanistan. Since then, it’s been housed at the AFRL’s High Power Microwave division, where lab scientists and engineers continue to work on new microwave systems to destroy enemy targets without harming people or infrastructure.
MaxPower is the only microwave weapon to date to be deployed on the battlefield. The Air Force also brought a nonlethal, vehicle-mounted Active Denial System, or “Pain Ray,” to Afghanistan. It causes a burning sensation on skin to disperse crowds or force people to drop their weapons, but it was never used. “MaxPower was one of the first Directed Energy systems that we deployed and used in theater,” said AFRL High Power Electromagnetics Division lead Mary Lou Robinson in a statement. “Active Denial was deployed but never turned on. MaxPower overcame that fear, hesitation and stigma of using something in theater that you can’t see, and it was used many times.”