DARPA Works to Perfect Self-Forging, High-Velocity 'Spears'

In his 1955 novel Earthlight, science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke thought of an incredible superweapon that used giant electromagnets to shoot a stream of molten metal at lightning speed. Now, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) wants one for America's military.

They are calling it MAHEM, which stands for Magneto Hydrodynamic Explosive Munition. The intent is to create a device that creates a powerful enough electromagnetic field to propel streams of molten metal at enemy armor. If it works, the device will be a big improvement on a technology that got its start in World War II — the self-forging penetrator.

Self-forging penetrators, as they are currently used, result from a conventional chemical explosion directed against a specially-shaped metal liner. When the device is set off, the blast causes the metal liner to achieve a new shape, suitable for penetrating deep into even moderately armored vehicles, and driven forward at a high velocity. The technology dates back to WWII.

This kind of weapon can be highly effective (it is currently being used against troops in Iraq). The drawbacks of this kind of weapon from the standpoint of US military planners is that they are one-time-use weapons, and cannot efficiently form multiple SFPs from a single charge.

If it is possible to use a powerful electromagnet to accelerate a molten jet of metal, it could overcome the drawbacks mentioned above, and even achieve higher velocities and better targeting. DARPA hopes that it could provide the following capabilities:

"This could provide the warfighter with a means to address stressing missions such as: lightweight active self-protection for vehicles (potential defeat mechanism for a kinetic energy round), counter armor (passive, reactive, and active), mine countermeasures, and anti-ship cruise missile final layer of defense."

Science fiction readers wonder what took DARPA planners so long; we've known about this idea for more than a half-century. In Earthlight, Arthur C. Clarke makes use of exactly this idea in a battle between a stationary facility on the Moon and several attacking space ships, including the aptly named Lethe.

Listen to the incomparable Clarke describe the battle for you, which takes place in the Sea of Rains.

"In utter silence, the battle was rising to its climax. Millions of years ago the molten rock had frozen to form the Sea of Rains, and now the weapons of the ships were turning it once more to lava. Out by the fortress, clouds of incandescent vapor were being blasted into the sky ...

"Wheeler saw it strike upward, a solid bar of light stabbing at the stars... He did not have time to reflect on the staggering violation of the laws of optics which this phenomenon implied, for he was staring at the ruined ship above his head. The beam had gone through Lethe as if she did not exist; the fortress had speared her as an entomologist pierces a butterfly with a pin."
(Read more about the stiletto beam; see illustrative book cover.)

The "beam" was a molten jet of metal hurled into space by enormous electromagnets.

This is not the only example of science-fictional weaponry sought by US government agencies:

Ghostbuster Approach To Neutralizing WMD
You knew that someday it would come to this; Homeland Security calls upon Ghostbuster tech.

Navy EMRG Hypervelocity Projectiles
This weapon can even strike targets on the other side of mountains.

Via MAgneto Hydrodynamic Explosive Munition (MAHEM); see also this tribute to Clarke, who died at age 90 last month.

(This Science Fiction in the News story used with permission of Technovelgy.com)