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By Tony Freinberg and Sean Rayment, Defence Correspondent
(Filed: 19/09/2004) Microwave weapons that cause pain without lasting injury are to be issued to American troops in Iraq for the first time as concern mounts over the growing number of civilians killed in fighting.
The non-lethal weapons, which use high-powered electromagnetic beams, will be fitted to vehicles already in Iraq, which will allow the system to be introduced as early as next year.
Using technology similar to that found in a conventional microwave oven, the beam rapidly heats water molecules in the skin to cause intolerable pain and a burning sensation. The invisible beam penetrates the skin to a depth of less than a millimetre. As soon as the target moves out of the beam's path, the pain disappears.
Because there are no after-effects, the United States Department of Defence believes that the weapons will be particularly useful in urban conflict. The beam could be used to scatter large crowds in which insurgents operate at close quarters to both troops and civilians.
"The skin gets extremely hot, and people can't stand the pain, so they have to move - and move in the way we want them to," said Col. Wade Hall of the Office of Force Transformation, a body formed in November 2001 to promote rapid improvement across all of the American armed services.
Rich Garcia, a spokesman for the Air Force Research Laboratory in New Mexico, where the systems were developed, took part in testing the weapon and was subjected to the microwave beam which has a range of one kilometre. "It just feels like your skin is on fire," he said. "[But] when you get out of the path of the beam, or shut off the beam, everything goes back to normal. There's no residual pain."
A heated battle on a crowded Baghdad street last week that left 16 Iraqis dead, highlighted once again the pressing need to reduce the number of civilian casualties, and at the same time prevent further damage to relations between American troops and the Iraqi population. American commanders later admitted using seven helicopter-launched rockets and 30 high-calibre machine gun rounds in last Sunday's incident.
The armoured vehicles will be named Sheriffs once they have been modified to carry the microwave weapons, known as the Active Denial System (ADS). Col Hall said that US army and US marine corps units should receive four to six ADS equipped Sheriffs by September 2005.
The project was initiated only three months ago but US military chiefs intend to rush the Sheriffs into the front line, believing that they can be of immediate assistance.
In another development, the Sheriffs will be fitted with Gunslinger, a rapid-fire gun currently under development that will detect enemy snipers and automatically fire back at them.
If the Sheriffs prove successful, their use will be expanded in combat zones. They will also be deployed for security at ports and air force bases, and could take part in border patrols.
by Daniel McCarthy - 06Feb03
Theres a new weapon of mass destruction, one designed to destroy critical electronic infrastructure. It shorts out everything from office computers to traffic lights to pacemakers, crippling the machines that run a modern economy not to mention those that run a modern hospital. Although not intended as an anti-personnel device, the side-effects that this weapon has upon human beings caught within its blast radius are devastating: those lucky enough to suffer a direct hit are more or less instantly vaporized. The less fortunate on the periphery of the blast, or those caught by a ricochet, suffer severe burns and damage to the internal organs, including the brain.
The weapon is the "e-bomb," or microwave bomb, and as you may have guessed, this new marvel of terror is brought to us by the same folks who gave the world the atomic bomb and weaponized anthrax. Yes, its a creation of the United States federal government and its "defense" contractors. Victorino Matus writes about the e-bomb on the Weekly Standards website; Matus cannot quite conceal his enthusiasm, but he does at least mention the humanitarian concerns about the device. Of course, he concludes by reiterating that the purpose of the bomb is actually to spare lives: to destroy electronics without also killing people. This is a humanitarian weapon.
Something here doesnt add up. Several news sources have reported that the e-bomb may see its first use in the attack on Iraq. Thats understandable as far as it goes; Iraq is not really a stone age country, despite years of sanctions. It may still have enough electronics to make the bomb an effective weapon in the U.S. arsenal (although then again, it may not). But think about this in the long term. The real danger to the United States at present comes from terrorist organizations, not from "rogue states," which are only significant to the extent that they harbor and support terrorists. How do you use an "e-bomb" against al Qaeda? Its not a weapon of much use against people hiding in caves. Nor is it of any use in stopping a hijacked airplane it could bring down an aircraft, of course, but so could a conventional missile, and the e-bomb would run the additional risk of shorting out any other electronics nearby, including other planes and systems on the ground. Even its usefulness against Iraq will be very limited. To put it bluntly, an anti-technology weapon is most useful against a target dependent on high technology. That doesnt mean Iraq, and it certainly doesnt mean Afghanistan or al Qaeda. It means countries like the United States.
By its very nature, the e-bomb poses more of a danger to the United States and other first world countries than it does to terrorists or rogue states. So why is the US developing this weapon? One explanation would be that the military-industrial bureaucracy is still fighting the last war. The e-bomb might work fine against the aircraft and mechanized infantry divisions of a large nation state such as the Soviet Union. It would be a useful weapon to deploy against cities as well, to scramble communications and handicap the economy. But this kind nation-to-nation warfare is not what America or the world currently faces. Even apart from al Qaeda, most of the fighting in the world today is within, not between, states. Outside of Africa, what warfare there still is between states typically now takes the form of the United States and its allies fighting a single, smaller foe of extremely limited conventional forces (Serbia, Iraq, etc.). In such engagements the e-bomb has limited practical value. Its a bunker-buster, and one of a highly specialized sort, in an age characterized by fewer and fewer bunkers. It might have applications in Iraq, but it would have had few indeed in Serbia except, again, as a weapon for use against cities.
On the other hand, the e-bomb would be a very convenient weapon for anyone who wanted to attack America. There are ways to shield, or "harden," electronics against electromagnetic pulses, but microwaves are the most difficult radiation to harden against. No doubt some of the most highly sensitive military technology might be proofed against an e-bomb, but civilians would have little protection. In addition to hospitals and traffic lights, power grids, air traffic control systems, and telecommunications could all be crippled or destroyed. The loss of life and economic damage would be bad enough in Belgrade or Baghdad; in an American city it would be far worse. The microwave bomb really is a weapon of mass destruction, one particularly tuned to the weaknesses of a modern, computer-reliant city.
Will the governments development of this weapon come back to haunt us? In twenty years time we may have President George P. Bush threatening war with Bhutan unless the Bhutanis can prove that they havent been developing an e-bomb. Meanwhile our own military-industrial complex will be busily at work creating yet another weapon of mass destruction. Its happened before and now its happening again.
By MARK THOMPSON
Posted Sunday, January 19, 2003; 10:31 a.m. EST
Every war has its wonder weapon. In Afghanistan, it was the Predator, the unmanned drone that would loiter, invisibly, over the battlefield before unleashing a Hellfire missile on an unsuspecting target. The Gulf War marked the debut of precision-guided munitions, and in Vietnam helicopters came of age. World War II gave us the horror of nuclear weapons, and World War I introduced the tank. If there's a second Gulf War, get ready to meet the high-power microwave.
HPMs are man-made lightning bolts crammed into cruise missiles. They could be key weapons for targeting Saddam Hussein's stockpiles of biological and chemical weapons. HPMs fry the sophisticated computers and electronic gear necessary to produce, protect, store and deliver such agents. The powerful electromagnetic pulses can travel into deeply buried bunkers through ventilation shafts, plumbing and antennas. But unlike conventional explosives, they won't spew deadly agents into the air, where they could poison Iraqi civilians or advancing U.S. troops.
The HPM is a top-secret program, and the Pentagon wants to keep it that way. Senior military officials have dropped hints about a new, classified weapon for Iraq but won't provide details. Still, information about HPMs, first successfully tested in 1999, has trickled out."High-power microwave technology is ready for the transition to active weapons in the U.S. military," Air Force Colonel Eileen Walling wrote in a rare, unclassified report on the program three years ago. "There are signs that microwave weapons will represent a revolutionary concept for warfare, principally because microwaves are designed to incapacitate equipment rather than humans."
HPMs can unleash in a flash as much electrical power2 billion watts or moreas the Hoover Dam generates in 24 hours. Capacitors aboard the missile discharge an energy pulsemoving at the speed of light and impervious to bad weatherin front of the missile as it nears its target. That pulse can destroy any electronics within 1,000 ft. of the flash by short-circuiting internal electrical connections, thereby wrecking memory chips, ruining computer motherboards and generally screwing up electronic components not built to withstand such powerful surges. It's similar to what can happen to your computer or TV when lightning strikes nearby and a tidal wave of electricity rides in through the wiring.
Most of this "e-bomb" development is taking place at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, N.M. The Directed Energy Directorate at Kirtland has been studying how to deliver varying but predictable electrical pulses to inflict increasing levels of harm: to deny, degrade, damage or destroy, to use the Pentagon's parlance. HPM engineers call it "dial-a-hurt." But that hurt can cause unintended problems: beyond taking out a tyrant's silicon chips, HPMs could destroy nearby heart pacemakers and other life-critical electrical systems inhospitals or aboard aircraft (that's why the U.S. military is putting them only on long-range cruise missiles). The U.S. used a more primitive form of these weaponsknown as soft bombsagainst Yugoslavia and in the first Gulf War, when cruise missiles showered miles of thin carbon fibers over electrical facilities, creating massive short circuits that shut down electrical power.
Although the Pentagon prefers not to use experimental weapons on the battlefield, "the world intervenes from time to time," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says. "And you reach in there and take something out that is still in a developmental stage, and you might use it."
WASHINGTON: The Pentagon has accelerated development of a new generation of advanced precision weaponry that could be ready for use in a high-tech battle for Baghdad, according to US military sources.
Weapons ready for battlefield deployment include a microwave bomb that emits powerful pulses of energy to destroy enemy electronics, disable communications and even block vehicle ignitions, without hurting bystanders.
Defence researchers have also successfully tested a radical thermobaric warhead - previously described as a "vacuum bomb" to be aimed at suspected chemical and biological stockpiles. The warheads are designed to produce a heat so intense that any contaminants released into the atmosphere are neutralised instantly.
After the success in Afghanistan of military innovations such as precision-guided bunker-busting bombs and remote-controlled Predator drones, Pentagon officials have been racing to develop previously experimental weapons that might prove invaluable should US troops be ordered into action in Iraq.
Military scientists have long been intrigued by the potential harnessing of microwave technology to paralyse enemy capabilities. The US air force used a related technique to disable Yugoslavian power grids during the Kosovo campaign.
Since then, research has advanced so rapidly that US officials believe a single microwave device carried by an unmanned aircraft could hit 100 targets with 1,000 pulses of high-intensity energy on a single sortie.
Military analysts believe that microwave bombs could be particularly useful against the Republican Guard and other defences around Baghdad.
Known as directed-energy weapons, they destroy electronic systems but -- in theory at least -- do not harm people or damage buildings.
Perhaps the most useful new toy in the Pentagon's Christmas sack is a three-dimensional computer simulation of the streets of Baghdad, complete with all known Iraqi military locations and satellite positioning co-ordinates. The 3D imagery is being studied by military commanders as they plan possible scenarios for a ground assault on the city.
The combination of overwhelming fire-power and technological expertise helps explain why so many Pentagon officials are convinced that the battle for Baghdad will prove a walkover.
In The Futurological Congress (1971), Polish writer Stanislaw Lem portrayed a future in which disobedience is controlled with hypothetical mind-altering chemicals dubbed "benignimizers". Lem's fictional work opens with the frightening story of a police and military biochemical attack on protesters outside of an international scientific convention. As the environment becomes saturated with hallucinogenic agents, in Lem's tale the protesters (and bystanders) descend into chaos, overcome by delusions and feelings of complacency, self-doubt, and even love.
If the Pentagon's Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate (JNLWD) has its way, Lem may be remembered as a prophet.
The Advantages and Limitations of Calmatives for Use as a Non-Lethal Technique, a 49 page report obtained last week by the Sunshine Project under US information freedom law, has revealed a shocking Pentagon program that is researching psychopharmacological weapons. Based on "extensive review conducted on the medical literature and new developments in the pharmaceutical industry", the report concludes that "the development and use of [psychopharmacological weapons] is achievable and desirable." These mind-altering weapons violate international agreements on chemical and biological warfare as well as human rights. Some of the techniques discussed in the report have already been used by the US in the "War on Terrorism".
The team, which is based at the Applied Research Laboratory of Pennsylvania State University, is assessing weaponization of a number of psychiatric and anesthetic pharmaceuticals as well as "club drugs" (such as the "date rape drug" GHB). According to the report, "the choice administration route, whether application to drinking water, topical administration to the skin, an aerosol spray inhalation route, or a drug filled rubber bullet, among others, will depend on the environment." The environments identified are specific military and civil situations, including "hungry refugees that are excited over the distribution of food", "a prison setting", an "agitated population" and "hostage situations". At times, the JNLWD team's report veers very close to defining dissent as a psychological disorder.
The drugs that Lem called "benignimizers" are called "calmatives" by the military. Some calmatives were weaponized by the Cold War adversaries, including BZ, described by those who have used it as "the ultimate bad trip". Calmatives were supposed to have been deleted from military stockpiles following the adoption of the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1993, which bans any chemical weapon that can cause death, temporary incapacitation, or permanent harm to humans or animals.
Calmative is military, not medical, terminology. In more familiar medical language, most of the drugs under consideration are central nervous system depressants. Most are synthetic, some are natural. They include opiates (morphine-type drugs) and benzodiazpines, such as Valium (diazepam). Antidepressants are also of great interest to the research team, which is looking for drugs like Prozac (fluoxetine) and Zoloft (sertraline) that are faster acting.
Many of the proposed drugs can be considered both chemical and biological weapons banned by the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC), and the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). As a practical matter, biological and chemical "calmatives" must be addressed together. As the agents are explicitly intended for military use, and are intended to incapacitate their victims, they do not fall under the CWC's domestic riot control agent exemption. Toxic products of living agents - such as the neurotoxin botulinum - are considered both chemical and biological agents. Any weapons use of neurotransmitters or substances mimicking their action is similarly covered by both arms control treaties. The researchers have developed a massive calmatives database and are following biomedical research on mechanisms of drug addiction, pain relief, and other areas of research on cognition-altering biochemicals. For example, the JNLWD team is tracking research on cholecystokinin, a neurotransmitter that causes panic attacks in healthy people and is linked to psychiatric disorders.
The drugs have hallucinogenic and other effects, including apnea (stopped breathing), coma, and death. One class of drugs under consideration are fentanyls. The report's cover features a diagram of fentanyl. According to the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the biological effects of fentanyls "are indistinguishable from those of heroin, with the exception that the fentanyls may be hundreds of times more potent." The report says that the drugs' profound effects may make it necessary to "check for the occasional person who may stop breathing (many medical reasons in the unhealthy, the elderly, and very young...", as well as victims who "'go to sleep' in positions that obstruct their airway".
The report points out that pharmaceutical candidates that fail because of excessive side-effects might be desirable for use as weapons: "Often, an unwanted side-effect... will terminate the development of a promising new pharmaceutical compound. However, in the variety of situations in which non-lethal techniques are used, there may be less need to be concerned with unattractive side-effects... Perhaps, the ideal calmative has already been synthesized and is awaiting renewed interest from its manufacturer."
As of March 2002, the team was researching a mix of pepper spray ("OC") and an unidentified calmative agent. Pepper spray is the most powerful chemical crowd control agent in use, and has been associated with numerous deaths. Adding a pharmacological "calmative" to OC would create a hideous concoction. The report prioritizes Valium and Precedex (dexmeditomidine) for weaponization, and it is possible that these are the agents that could be mixed with OC. The researchers also suggest mixing ketamine with other drugs (see below). The chemical cocktail proposals bear a resemblance to South Africa's apartheid-era weapons research, whose director claimed under oath to have attempted to develop a BZ and cocaine mixture for use on government enemies.
Precedex is sedative approved for use in the US on patients hospitalized in intensive care units. The report draws attention to an "interesting phenomenon" related to Precedex use - the drug increases patients' reaction to electrical shock. The researchers suggest sensitizing people by using Precedex on them, followed by use of electromagnetic weapons to "address effects on the few individuals where an average dose of the pharmacological agent did not have the desired effect." Obviously, such a technique might be considered torture, and certainly could be used to torture. To add to hypnotic and delusional properties, the researchers suggest that psychopharmaceutical agents could be designed to have physical effects including headache and nausea, adding to their torture potential.
The researchers suggest that transdermal patches and transmucosal (through mucous membranes) formulations of Buspar (buspirone) under development by Bristol-Myers Squibb and TheraTech, Inc. "may be effective in a prison setting where there may have been a recent anxiety-provoking incident or confrontation."
Of course, uncooperative or rioting prisoners would be extraordinarily unlikely to accept being drugged with a transdermal patch or most conventional means. Any such application of a "calmative" would likely be on individuals in shackles or a straightjacket. The US has admitted that it forcibly sedates Al-Qaida "detainees" held at the US base in Guantanamo, Cuba. Former JNLWD commander and retired Col. Andy Mazzara, who directs the Penn State team, says has he sent a "Science Advisor" to the US Navy to assist the War on Terrorism.
A number of weaponization modes are discussed in the report. These include aerosol sprays, microencapsulation, and insidious methods such as introduction into potable water supplies and psychoactive chewing gum. JNLWD is investing in the development of microencapsulation technology, which involves creating granules of a minute quantity of agent coated with a hardened shell. Distributed on the ground, the shell breaks under foot and the agent is released. A new mortar round being developed could deliver thousands of the minute granules per round. The team concludes that new delivery methods under development by the pharmaceutical industry will be of great weapons value. These include new transdermal, transmucosal, and aerosol delivery methods. The report cites the relevance of a lollipop containing fentanyl used to treat children in severe pain, and notes that "the development of new pain-relieving opiate drugs capable of being administered via several routes is at the forefront of drug discovery", concluding that new weapons could be developed from this pharmaceutical research.
The researchers express specific interest shooting humans with guns loaded with carfentanil darts. Carfentanil is a veterinary narcotic used to tranquilize large, dangerous animals such as bears and tigers. Anyone who has watched wildlife shows on television is familiar with the procedure. In the US, carfentanil is not approved for any use on human beings. It is an abused drug and a controlled substance. Under US law, first time offenders convicted of unlicensed possession of carfentanil can be punished by up to 20 years in prison and a $1 million fine.
Most of the JNLWD team's weapon candidates are controlled substances in most countries. Some are widely used legitimate pharmaceuticals that are also drugs of abuse, such as Valium and opiates. The Pentagon team advocates more research into the weapons potential of convulsants (which provoke seizures) and "club drugs", the generally illegal substances used by some at "rave" and dance clubs. Among those in the military spotlight are ketamine ("Special K"), GHB (Gamma-hydroxybutrate, "liquid ecstasy"), and rohypnol ("Roofies"). The latter two in particular are called "date rape drugs" because of incidences of their use on victims of sexual and other crimes. Most are DEA Schedule I or II narcotics that provoke hallucinations and can carry a sentence of life imprisonment. For example, according to the DEA, "Use of ketamine as a general anesthetic for humans has been limited due to adverse effects including delirium and hallucinations... Low doses produce vertigo, ataxia, slurred speech, slow reaction time, and euphoria. Intermediate doses produce disorganized thinking, altered body image, and a feeling of unreality with vivid visual hallucinations. High doses produce analgesia, amnesia, and coma."
Edward Hammond is director of The Sunshine Project, based in Austin, Texas. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Additional information, on relationships between these weapons and protection human rights, medical ethics, and drug research is forthcoming. A summary of the report is available on the Sunshine Project website.
By Alan Philps in Jerusalem
April 16 2002
Daily Telegraph, London
The Israeli Army is broadcasting ear-splitting screeches and wails at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, traditional site of Jesus' birth, to force out 200 Palestinians besieged there.
Troops brought in a crane to hoist loudspeakers over the ancient basilica, one of the holiest shrines in Christendom, as part of what one person inside called "psycho terror". One of the noises sounds like a car alarm.
Camped outside the church, the army estimates there are about 50 wanted Palestinian militants inside, with clergy and civilians.
The Israeli Government offered a deal on Sunday under which the wanted men would be given a choice between permanent exile and trial before a military court. "If they leave, it's for good but, if they stay, then they will have to stand trial in Israel," said a spokesman for the Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon. The offer was put by the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, to the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, during talks on Sunday.
Palestinian negotiators immediately rejected it, saying the men would not accept exile, and if they were to be judged it should be before a Palestinian court. But they would accept any deal that Mr Arafat approved.
In an appeal on Friday the trapped Palestinians called for United Nations intervention to save them from "a slow death".
They have been deprived of food for almost two weeks, and the army has shot at Palestinian youths lobbing bags of bread into the compound.
"We are hearing loud whistles and screeches in the daytime and now at night," said the Governor of Bethlehem, Mahmoud Madani, who is inside the church. "They want to destroy our morale, but the only solution is a negotiated settlement."
The church has responded to the caterwauling by ringing its bells.
In a major blow to the Palestinian resistance, Israel last night arrested Marwan Barghouthi, a leader of Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction in the West Bank and regarded by Israel as the top militant in the area, Israeli security sources said.
Barghouthi, sought by Israel since it launched a West Bank offensive on March 29, was arrested in the city of Ramallah, the sources said
14:47 09 May 02
Exclusive from New Scientist Print Edition
Bugs that eat roads and buildings. Biocatalysts that break down fuel and plastics. Devices that stealthily corrode aluminium and other metals. These are just a few of the non-lethal weapons that the US has tried to develop, or is trying to develop.
But quite how close such weapons are to reality we may never know. The US National Academy of Sciences is refusing to release dozens of reports proposing or describing their development, even though the documents are supposed to be public records.
The academy is justifying its unprecedented reticence by citing security concerns after 11 September. But campaigners think the real reason is that the research violates both US law and international treaties on chemical and biological weapons.
The documents in question were collected in 2001 by a panel of academic and industry scientists set up by the NAS to evaluate recent non-lethal weapons research for the Pentagon's Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Program. The US took an increased interest in non-lethals after its disastrous peacekeeping mission in Somalia in 1993, when rioting civilians killed American soldiers.
The panel, whose report is due out later in 2002, collected 147 reports and proposals from researchers, many of them funded by the JNLWP. One group at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, for example, proposes using intense electromagnetic fields to produce effects "ranging from the disruption of short-term memory to total loss of control of voluntary bodily functions". Others propose directed energy weapons.
Off the record
In March, as is usual with non-classified studies by the NAS, they were deposited with the academy's Public Access Records Office, and their titles were released (see table). "These documents are supposed to be public," says Ed Hammond of the Sunshine Project, a group campaigning against biological weapons. When he asked the records office to see 77 of the documents, it agreed to hand them over.
"But two days later the NAS pulled the documents," says Hammond. "Kevin Hale, the NAS security officer, told me it was because someone had expressed concern." Who did so is not clear. The pressure for the clampdown does not appear to have come from the JNLWP itself, because last week it sent Hammond eight documents he had requested, including three on the NAS list.
New Scientist could not get hold of Hale. "We are still formulating our response to the Sunshine people," is all an assistant would say. But the few reports that Hammond did obtain make interesting reading.
In 2000, New Scientist revealed that senior officials in the JNLWP want to rewrite the chemical and biological weapons treaties to give themselves more freedom to develop non-lethal weapons. The reports make it clear that research that violates the treaties has been under way since the 1990s.
One 1998 funding application from the Office of Naval Research proposes creating genetically engineered microorganisms that would corrode roads and runways, and produce "targeted deterioration of metal parts, coatings and lubricants of weapons, vehicles and support equipment, as well as fuels".
The plan was to isolate genes for enzymes that attack materials such as Kevlar, asphalt, cement, paints or lubricants, and put them into microbes that churn them out in large quantities. The bugs were to be engineered to self-destruct after wreaking havoc.
It is not clear how many of these ideas have actually been realised. But the group has already patented a microorganism that would decompose polyurethane, "a common component of paint for ships and aircraft", including stealth anti-radar coatings.
Another 1998 proposal, from a biotech lab at Brooks Air Force Base near San Antonio in Texas, was to refine "anti-material biocatalysts" already under development. One of these involved a bacterial derivative that breaks down organic molecules such as fuels and plastic.
The proposal claims that such substances are exempt from biological warfare restrictions. But that is not true, argues Mark Wheelis of University of California, Davis.
The Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention of 1972 prohibits the "development, production, stockpiling or acquisition of biological agents or toxins" other than for peaceful purposes. What is more, last year the US itself introduced a law banning the possession of bioweapons, including microbes designed to attack materials.
The withheld documents also include proposals to use stink bombs, sedatives and opium derivatives as weapons, which Wheelis thinks would contravene the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1992. This prohibits "any chemical which ... can cause death, temporary incapacitation or permanent harm".
... but out of nowhere a wave of chaos was to wash over that world. In a millisecond it was gone. There were no phones, no computers, no power, nothing. Yet nobody had died, no buildings razed to the ground. And then the blind panic set in. What's going on, asks Ian Sample
It sounds like the perfect weapon. Without fracturing a single brick or spilling a drop of blood, it could bring a city to its knees. The few scientists who are prepared to talk about it speak of a sea change in how wars will be fought. Even in peacetime, the same technology could bring mayhem to our daily lives. This weapon is so simple to make, scientists say, it wouldn't take a criminal genius to put one together and wreak havoc. Some believe attacks have started already, but because the weapon leaves no trace it's a suspicion that's hard to prove. The irony is that it's our love of technology itself that makes us so vulnerable.
This perfect weapon is the electromagnetic bomb, or e-bomb. The idea behind it is simple. Produce a high-power flash of radio waves or microwaves and it will fry any circuitry it hits. At lower powers, the effects are more subtle: it can throw electronic systems into chaos, often making them crash. In an age when electronics finds its way into just about everything bar food and bicycles, it is a sure way to cause mass disruption. Panic the financial markets and you could make a killing as billions are wiped off share values. You could freeze transport systems, bring down communications, destroy computer networks. It's swift, discreet and effective.
Right now, talk of the threat of these weapons is low-key, and many want it to stay that way. But in some circles, concern is mounting. Last month, James O'Bryon, the deputy director of Live Fire Test & Evaluation at the US Department of Defense flew to a conference in Scotland to address the issue. "What we're trying to do is look at what people might use if they wanted to do something damaging," he says. With good reason, this is about as much as O'Bryon is happy to divulge.
E-bombs may already be part of the military arsenal. According to some, these weapons were used during NATO's campaign against Serbia last year to knock out radar systems. So do they really exist? "Lots of people are doing lots of work to protect against this type of thing," says Daniel Nitsch of the German Army Scientific Institute for Protection Technology in Muster, Lower Saxony. "You can make your own guess."
Interest in electromagnetic weapons was triggered half a century ago, when the military were testing something a lot less subtle. "If you let a nuclear weapon off, you get a huge electromagnetic pulse," says Alan Phelps of the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. If this pulse hits electronic equipment, it can induce currents in the circuitry strong enough to frazzle the electronics. "It can destroy all computers and communications for miles," says Phelps.
But the military ran into problems when it came to finding out more about
the effects of these pulses. How could they create this kind of powerful
pulse without letting off nuclear bombs? Researchers everywhere took up the
The scientists knew that the key was to produce intense but short-lived pulses of electric current. Feeding these pulses into an antenna pumps out powerful electromagnetic waves with a broad range of frequencies. The broader the range, the higher the chance that something electrical will absorb them and burn out.
Researchers quickly realised the most damaging pulses are those that contain high frequencies. Microwaves in the gigahertz range can sneak into boxes of electronics through the slightest gap: vent holes, mounting slots or cracks in the metal casing. Once inside, they can do their worst by inducing currents in any components they hit. Lower radio frequencies, right down to a few megahertz, can be picked up by power leads or connectors. These act as antennas, sending signals straight to the heart of any electronic equipment they are connected to. If a computer cable picks up a powerful electromagnetic pulse, the resulting power surge may fry the computer chips.
To cook up high-frequency microwaves, scientists need electrical pulses that come and go in a flash--around 100 picoseconds, or one ten-billionth of a second. One way of doing this is to use a set-up called a Marx generator. This is essentially a bank of big capacitors that can be charged up together, then discharged one after the other to create a tidal wave of current. Channelling the current through a series of super-fast switches trims it down to a pulse of around 300 picoseconds. Pass this pulse into an antenna and it releases a blast of electromagnetic energy. Marx generators tend to be heavy, but they can be triggered repeatedly to fire a series of powerful pulses in quick succession.
Marx generators are at the heart of an experimental weapons system being built for the US Air Force by Applied Physical Sciences, an electronics company in Whitewater, Kansas. "We're trying to put them on either unmanned aerial vehicles or just shells or missiles in an effort to make an electromagnetic minefield," says Jon Mayes of APS. "If something flies through it, it'll knock it out." It could also be used on a plane to burn out the controls of incoming missiles, says Mayes. Put it on the back of a military jet and if a missile locks onto the plane, the generator can release a pulse that scrambles the missile's electronics.
Marx generators have the advantage of being able to operate repeatedly. But to generate a seriously powerful, one-off pulse, you can't beat the oomph of old-fashioned explosives. The energy stored in a kilo or two of TNT can be turned into a huge pulse of microwaves using a device called a flux compressor. This uses the energy of an explosion to cram a current and its magnetic field into an ever-smaller volume. Sending this pulse into an antenna creates a deadly burst of radiowaves and microwaves.
Simplicity is one of the flux compressor's big attractions. Just take a metal tube, pack it with explosives, and stick a detonator in one end. Then fix the tube inside a cylinder of coiled wire, which has a wire antenna attached at the far end. Finally, pass a current through the coil to set up a magnetic field between the metal tube and the coil, and you're ready to go (Click on thumbnail graphic for diagram.).
Setting off the detonator triggers the charge, sending an explosion racing along the tube at almost 6000 metres per second. If you could slow this down, you'd see that in the instant before the explosive pressure wave begins to shatter the device, the blast flares out the inner metal tube. The distorted metal makes contact with the coil, causing a short circuit that diverts the current--and the magnetic field it generates--into the undisturbed coil ahead of it. As the explosive front advances, the magnetic field is squeezed into a smaller and smaller volume. Compressing the field this way creates a huge rise in current in the coil ahead of the explosion, building a mega-amp pulse just 500 picoseconds wide. Finally, just before the whole weapon is destroyed in the blast, the current pulse flows into an antenna, which radiates its electromagnetic energy outwards. The whole process is over in less than a tenth of a millisecond, but for an instant it can spray out a terawatt of power.
Tom Schilling of TPL, an electronics company in Albuquerque, New Mexico, is working along similar lines with the microwave weapons he's developing for the US Air Force. "We're using explosive flux generators to generate the power, then sending that straight into an antenna," he says. "One of the systems we're looking at is a guided bomb that can be dropped off a plane. Targets would be things like command and control centres--we should be able to shut those down with little or no collateral damage." Schilling's company is also looking at putting flux compressors into air-to-air missiles. It's an appealing idea, as even a near miss could bring down a plane.
It certainly ought to be practical. As long ago as the late 1960s, scientists sent a pair of flux compressors into the upper atmosphere aboard a small rocket to generate power for an experiment to study the ionosphere. "You can build flux compressors smaller than a briefcase," says Ivor Smith, an electrical engineer at Loughborough University who has worked on these devices for years.
Perhaps the biggest benefit of these weapons is that they carry the tag "non-lethal". You could take out a city's communications systems without killing anyone or destroying any buildings. In addition to the obvious benefits for the inhabitants, this also avoids the sort of bad press back home that can fuel opposition to a war. But that doesn't make these weapons totally safe, especially if they're being used to mess up the electronics of aircraft. "If you're in an aeroplane that loses its ability to fly, it's going to be bad for you," points out James Benford of Microwave Sciences in Lafayette, California.
Another big plus for people thinking of using these weapons is that microwaves pass easily through the atmosphere. This means that you can set off your weapon and inflict damage without having to get close to your target. "People think in terms of a kilometre away," says Benford. According to some estimates, a flux compressor detonated at an altitude of few hundred metres could wipe out electronics over a 500-metre radius.
Electromagnetic weapons can be sneaky, too. You don't have to fry everything in sight. Instead you can hit just hard enough to make electronics crash--they call it a "soft kill" in the business--and then quietly do what you came to do without the enemy ever knowing you've even been there. "That could be useful in military applications when you just want to make [the opposition] lose his electronic memory for long enough to do your mission," Benford says. "You can deny you ever did anything," he adds. "There's no shrapnel, no burning wreckage, no smoking gun."
The downside is that it can sometimes be hard to tell when an electromagnetic weapon has done its job. This is compounded by the fact that unless you know exactly what kind of electronics you are attacking, and how well protected they are, it's hard to know how much damage a weapon will do. This unpredictability has been a major problem for the military as it tries to develop these weapons. "Military systems have to go through an enormous amount of development," says Benford. "The key thing is that it has to have a clearly demonstrated and robust effect."
Tests like this are close to the heart of Nigel Carter, who assesses aircraft for their sensitivity to microwaves at Britain's Defence Evaluation and Research Agency in Farnborough, Hampshire. Microwaves can easily leak between panels on the fuselage, he says. "You've also got an undercarriage with hatches that open, there's leakage through the cockpit, leakage through any doors."
To find out how bad that leakage is, Carter could simply put the plane in a field and fire away at it with microwaves. But he has to be careful. "If we go blatting away at a very high level at hundreds of frequencies, people in the nearest town get a bit upset because they can't watch TV any more," says Carter. "It's very unpopular."
To avoid annoying the neighbours, Carter beams very low-power microwaves at the plane. Sensors on board--linked by fibre optics to data recorders so they are immune to the microwaves--record the currents induced in the plane's electronics.
Knowing what currents are produced by weak microwaves, Carter calculates what kinds of currents are likely to be produced if the plane is hit by a more powerful pulse of microwaves. "You can then inject those currents directly into the electronics," he says. The results can be dramatic. "The sort of effects you might expect to get if it's not protected are instrumentation displaying wrong readings, displays blanking out and you could, in the worst case, get interference with your flight controls," he says.
The idea of weapons like these being used in warfare is disturbing enough, but what if criminals get their hands on them? According to Bill Radasky, an expert in electromagnetic interference with Metatech in Goleta, California, they may have already done so. A basic microwave weapon, he says, can be cobbled together with bits from an electrical store for just a few hundred dollars. Such a system would be small enough to fit in the back of a car and could crash a computer from 100 metres away.
Other systems are even easier to acquire. Some mail-order electronics outlets sell compact microwave sources that are designed to test the vulnerability of electronics. But they could just as easily be used in anger. "We've done experiments that show it's very easy to do," says Radasky. "We've damaged a lot of equipment with those little boxes." If some reports are to be believed, they're not the only ones.
Criminals may have already used microwave weapons, according to Bob Gardner who chairs the Electromagnetic Noise and Interference Commission of the International Union of Radio Science in Ghent, Belgium. Reports from Russia suggest that these devices have been used to disable bank security systems and to disrupt police communications. Another report suggests a London bank may also have been attacked. While these incidents are hard to prove, they're perfectly plausible. "If you're asking whether it's technologically reasonable that someone could do something like this," says Gardner, "then the answer is yes."
Gardner's claims are backed by Nitsch. He is investigating how vulnerable computers and networks are to powerful bursts of microwaves. Surprisingly, he has found that today's machines are far easier to crash than older models. He says computer manufacturers used to be more worried about electromagnetic interference, so they often put blocks of material inside to absorb stray signals, and ran strips of copper around the joins in the casing to keep microwaves out.
That modern computers have less protection is bad enough. But they are also more susceptible because they are more powerful. To push signals around faster, you must reduce the voltage to ensure that the extra current doesn't make the processor chips overheat. In the 1980s, most computers operated at 5 volts. Today's machines operate at nearer 2 volts, says Nitsch, making their signals easier to disrupt. Networks are particularly susceptible, he adds, because the hundreds of metres of cabling connecting their workstations can act as an efficient radiowave receiving antenna.
So are businesses taking the threat seriously? Radasky knows of only one European company that has protected its control centre against microwave weapons. Gardner believes it will take a high-profile attack to raise awareness of the issue. But combine the lack of evidence left by microwaves with companies' reluctance to admit their systems have been breached and you'd expect attacks to go unreported.
The good news is that protection isn't too difficult if it's done at the design stage, says Carter. The first thing to do is make sure you've got well-constructed circuits. This means using strong signals that can easily be distinguished from the fuzz of noise generated by microwaves. "You also want to make sure your circuitry only responds at the frequency it's supposed to," he says. So if your computer is intended to respond to signals coming in at 500 megahertz, you want to make sure it won't also respond to signals at twice that frequency--the kind that could be induced by microwaves. Another step is to wire in filters that absorb large surges of current--much like those used to protect against glitches in the mains power supply following lightning strikes.
Regardless of whether these weapons have been used yet, they highlight the way our dependence on electronics could become our Achilles' heel. The next time your computer crashes, don't automatically blame Bill Gates. Just wander over to the window and look out for that unmarked van that sometimes parks across the street. Could there be someone inside sending a blast of microwaves your way?
07May00 - New Scientist Electromagnetic Weapon Article