Particle Beam Weapon

Huge Ion Cannon - Concept art by Ralph McQuarrie

Particle-beam weapon

"Ion cannon" redirects here. For the network stress-testing application, see Low Orbit Ion Cannon.

A particle-beam weapon uses a high-energy beam of atomic or subatomic particles to damage the target by disrupting its atomic and/or molecular structure. A particle-beam weapon is a type of directed-energy weapon, which directs energy in a particular and focused direction using particles with miniscule mass. Some particle-beam weapons have potential practical applications, e.g. as an antiballistic missile defense system for the United States and its cancelled Strategic Defense Initiative. The vast majority, however, are science fiction and are among the most common weapon types of the genre. They have been known by myriad names: phasers, particle accelerator guns, ion cannons, proton beams, lightning rays, rayguns etc.

The concept of particle-beam weapons comes from sound scientific principles and experiments currently underway around the world. One effective process to cause damage to or destroy a target is to simply overheat it until it is no longer operational. However, after decades of R&D, particle-beam weapons are still very much at the research stage and it remains to be seen if or when they will be deployed as practical, high-performance military weapons.

Particle accelerators are a well-developed technology used in scientific research for decades. They use electromagnetic fields to accelerate and direct charged particles along a predetermined path, and electrostatic "lenses" to focus these streams for collisions. The cathode ray tube in many twentieth-century televisions and computer monitors is a very simple type of particle accelerator. More powerful versions include synchrotrons and cyclotrons used in nuclear research. A particle-beam weapon is a weaponized version of this technology. It accelerates charged particles (in most cases electrons, positrons, protons, or ionized atoms, but very advanced versions can use other particles such as mercury nuclei) to near-light speed and then shoots them at a target. These particles have tremendous kinetic energy which they impart to matter in the target's surface, inducing near-instantaneous and catastrophic superheating.

Beam generation

Charged particle beams diverge rapidly due to mutual repulsion, so neutral particle beams are more commonly proposed. A neutral-particle-beam weapon ionizes atoms by either stripping an electron off of each atom, or by allowing each atom to capture an extra electron. The charged particles are then accelerated, and neutralized again by adding or removing electrons afterwards.

Cyclotron particle accelerators, linear particle accelerators, and Synchrotron particle accelerators can accelerate positively charged hydrogen ions until their velocity approaches the speed of light, and each individual ion has a kinetic energy range of 100 MeV to 1000 MeV or more. Then the resulting high energy protons can capture electrons from electron emitter electrodes, and be thus electrically neutralized. This creates an electrically neutral beam of high energy hydrogen atoms, that can proceed in a straight line at near the speed of light to smash into its target and damage it.

The pulsed particle beam emitted by such a weapon may contain 1 gigajoule of kinetic energy or more. The speed of a beam approaching that of light (299,792,458 m/s in a vacuum) in combination with the energy created by the weapon would negate any realistic means of defending a target against the beam. Target hardening through shielding or materials selection would be impractical or ineffective, especially if the beam could be maintained at full power and precisely focused on the target.


The U.S. Defense Strategic Defense Initiative put into development the technology of a neutral particle beam to be used as a weapon in outer space. Neutral beam accelerator technology was developed at Los Alamos National Laboratory. As part of the Beam Experiments Aboard Rocket (BEAR) project, a prototype hydrogen beam weapon was launched from White Sands Missile Range in July 1989 and successfully deployed into Low Earth Orbit. It was operated successfully in space and after reentry was recovered intact. In 2006 the weapon prototype was transferred from Los Alamos to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.

Wikipedia - Particle Beam Weapon

Neutral Particle Beam Technology
The proposed space-based neutral particle beam would shoot an unbendable beam of hydrogen molecules at approximately 60,000 kilometers per second to disrupt the electronics and warhead of an incoming missile.
Neutral Particle Beam Accelerator, Beam Experiment Aboard Rocket

 Display Status:
This object is not on display at the National Air and Space Museum. It is either on loan or in storage.

This low power neutral particle beam (NPB) accelerator developed by Los Alamos National Laboratory was one of several directed energy weapons investigated by the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization for possible use in missile defense. As part of the Beam Experiments Aboard Rocket project, it was launched from White Sands in July 1989 to an altitude of 200 kilometers (124 miles), operated successfully in space, and after reentry was recovered intact. The test's goals included determining NPB propagation characteristics in space and the effects on spacecraft components. Although research continued into NPBs, no deployed weapon has ever employed this technology.

Los Alamos transferred this artifact to the Museum in 2006.

Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum
The Death-Beam Gap

Putting Keegan's Follies in Perspective
John Pike - October 1992

In May 1977 the American national security community was startled by a report in the respected trade journal Aviation Week & Space Technology concerning Soviet progress in directed energy weapons. For several years Major General George J. Keegan, head of Air Force intelligence, had been monitoring Soviet developments since 1973, and attempting since 1975 to convince the American military and intelligence community of an impending directed energy weapons gap. With his retirement in January 1977, he went public with his case. It was reported that:

"In increasing numbers, U.S. officials are coming to a conclusion that a decisive turn in the balance of strategic power is in the making, which could tip that balance heavily in the Soviet's favor through charged particle beam development ... Most of the controversy centers on what tests are being conducted in an unusual research facility about 35 mi. south of the city of Semipalatinsk."

Aviation Week editorialized that:

"The Soviet Union has achieved a technical breakthrough in high-energy physics applications that may soon provide it with a directed-energy beam weapon capable of neutralizing the entire United States ballistic missile force and checkmating this country's strategic doctrine... The race to perfect directed-energy weapons is a reality. Despite initial skepticism, the U.S. scientific community is now pressuring for accelerated efforts in this area."

This controversy reached the highest levels of the American government. President Jimmy Carter responded that:

"... we do not see any likelihood at all, based on our constant monitoring of the Soviet Union, that they have any prospective breakthrough in a new weapons system that would endanger our country."

And Defense Secretary Harold Brown concluded:

"It is, in my view, and that of all the technically qualified people whom I know who've looked at the whole thing, without foundation, the evidence does not support the view that the Soviets have made such a breakthrough or indeed that they are very far along in such a direction."

The Central Intelligence Agency stated that it did:

" ... not believe that the Soviet Union has achieved a breakthrough which could lead to a charged particle beam weapon capable of neutralizing ballistic missiles."

The former Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, LTG Daniel O. Graham concluded that Keegan's analysis was built on too many assumptions:

" ... one worst case analysis may be right, but something that depends on a whole group of them never is."

And the Acting Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, VADM Bobby Inman, responding to Congressional inquiries about Soviet particle beam progress, stated:

"There is no basis in available evidence to ascribe to the Soviet Union success in the development of such a weapon."

Nonetheless, the furor created by General Keegan's charges provided the political impetus for a significant expansion of the American directed energy program by the Carter Administration. A major space-based laser effort was initiatied under the auspices of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Work began on the ALPHA chemical laser project in 1978. Contracts for the TALON GOLD targetting system were awarded in 1979. And the Large Optics Demonstration Experiment (LODE) started in 1980. These activities subsequently formed the basis for the Strategic Defense Initiative.

Misreading the Evidence

Several types of activity at Semipalatinsk were interpreted as indicating particle beam weapon work. However, it is now clear that each of these observed activities were in fact part of the Soviet nuclear rocket program. Suggestions that the rocket test stands at Semipalatinsk had been improperly interpreted as directed energy weapons facilities were first raised in early 1992. But the September 1992 tour of Semipalatinsk has clarified this long-standing mystery.

A number of activities observed in the mid-1970s, which Keegan and his supporters interpreted as evidence of a Soviet beam weapon program, are now clearly revealed as aspects of the Soviet nuclear rocket program.

Wikipedia - Particle Beam Weapon
The facility at Semipalatinsk was identified by the Air Force as PNUT - Possible Nuclear Underground Test, and by the Central Intelligence Agency as URDF-3 - Unidentified Research and Development Facility Three. General Keegan predicted that this facility would become fully operational by 1980. It was reported that:

"The central building at the facility is believed by some officials to contain a collective accelerator, electron injectors and power sources. The building is 200 ft. wide and 700 ft. long, with walls of reinforced concrete 10 ft. thick."

In reality, this large building was the reactor test facility. The large size of the facility was dictated by the requirement to simultaneously service three test reactors.


One activity related to the construction of a series of large underground spheres. It was reported that:

"The U.S. used high-resolution photographic reconnaissance satellites to watch as the Soviet technicians had four holes dug through solid granite formations not far from the main building at the facility. Mine heads were constructed over the each opening, and frames were built over the holes. As tons of rock were removed, a large underground chamber was built deep inside the rock formation.

"In a nearby building, huge, extremely thick steel gores were manufactured. The building has since been removed. These steel segments were parts of a large sphere estimated to be about 18 meters (57.8 ft.) in diameter. Enough gores for two complete spheres were constructed."

It was reported that:

"U.S. officials believe the spheres are needed to capture and store energy from nuclear-driven explosives or pulse-power generators. The steel gores are believed by some officials to be among the earliest clues as to what might be taking place at the facility."

The reality was more prosaic. The Baikal-1 nuclear rocket test facility included three large underground tanks for storage of liquid hydrogen.(13) These were fabricated on-site out of large "orange-peel slice" metal gores, and situated underground to provide structural support. The gaps between the spherical holes in the bedrock and the tanks were filled with concrete. This permitted the use of relatively thin metal segments. In 1982, one of the tanks developed a leak, and became unusable.


Another line of evidence was based on the fact that:

    "Photographs from satellites also revealed a number of tank cars near the test site loaded with liquid hydrogen."

General Keegan and his supporters contended that the liquid hydrogen:

"... was being used by the Soviets for cryogenic pumping of beam drift tubes..."

which were seen as part of the focusing mechanism for the particle beam weapon. The reality, of course, is that these tank cars carried the liquid hydrogen that was stored in the underground tanks.


A further point of interest stemmed from the fact that:

"At one time, there were five concentric rings constructed around the building about 5 km. (3.1 mi.) apart. At each 5 deg. of arc, a vertical sensor was placed. At first, U.S. analysts believed this arrangement was to monitor movement of gaseous hydrogen clouds. The geometry was so precise, however, that some believed that the sensors were located to measure beam impact of for beam tracking."

The more prosaic initial assessment was correct. The sensors were emplaced around the rocket test facility to monitor radiation releases from the open-air rocket tests.


It was also reported that:

"Detection of large amounts of gaseous hydrogen with traces of tritium in the upper atmosphere. The USAF/TRW Block 647 defense support program early warning satellite with scanning radiation detectors and infrared sensors has been used to determine that on seven occasions since November, 1975, tests that may be related to development of a charged-particle beam device have been carried out in a facility at Semipalatinsk."

"There is now no doubt that there is dumping of energy taking place at the site, with burning of large hydrogen flames."

These observations, of course, were the testing of the nuclear rocket reactors, which released large flames of hydrogen propellant.

Sources of Confusion

The confusion about Semipalatinsk was not limited to the American side. It was suggested that, on the basis of Western reports:

" ... many young Russian scientists in the 1980s were thrilled to be sent to Semipalatinsk, where they assumed they would be working on "Keegan's beam" ... Apparently they were disappointed that it did not exist. Consequently, morale suffered."

The primary source of confusion over the Semipalatinsk facility was the predilection for worst-case assessments by some elements of the American intelligence community. As had been the case in previous episodes such as the bomber gap, the missile gap, and the mine shaft gap, such worst-case assessments were supported by those whose programs would benefit by additional funding and expanded political influence.

There were, however, mitigating factors that helped engender the mis-perception of Semipalatinsk. The American difficulties in assessing this facility were aggravated by the Soviet practice of scheduling reactor tests during periods in which the test facility would not be observed by American imaging intelligence satellites.

In addition, the Soviet nuclear rocket testing program had not commenced until after the termination of the American nuclear rocket program. In the absence of an announced Soviet program, and in the absence of an apparent mission application for nuclear propulsion, it would not be difficult to look for other explanations. While a variety of interpretations were offered for the Semipalatinsk facility, there is no indication that nuclear rocket testing was offered as a potential explanation for the observed activity.

And the American association of the Semipalatinsk facility with directed energy weapons was not entirely misplaced.(20) It was suggested that a reactor was used to supply supersonic hydrogen gas flow for a gas dynamic laser. And although the IGR reactor was initially developed to test nuclear propulsion components, it was also used to test nuclear reactor-pumped laser concepts, similar to the FALCON concept tested in the United States.

Open Questions

Despite the wealth of new information on the Soviet nuclear rocket program, some matters require further clarification:

What reactor was observed being tested in 1976, and what was the source that collected this information? Reportedly American intelligence observed over half a dozen tests in the 1976 time-frame, which would appear inconsistent with the Soviet reports of test dates. Although it may be assumed that these tests were monitored by the American Defense Support Program early warning satellites as well as reconnaissance aircraft, it is not immediately obvious how these systems would detect large flares of hot hydrogen with tritium contaminants.

Resolution of these questions would further clarify the history of the Soviet nuclear rocket program. Nonetheless, it is now clear that General Keegan's misidentification of the Baikal-1 nuclear rocket test facility must rank as one of the major intelligence failures of the Cold War.

The Death-Beam Gap: Putting Keegan's Follies in Perspective - John Pike - October 1992 

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