WASHINGTON -- An army may still travel on its stomach, but a vital point of
attack these days is the brain -- the electronic brain.
With modern warfare so dependent on computers and communications devices, a
weapon that renders them useless could be invaluable. And after decades of research,
U.S. scientists and engineers may be close to fielding an effective technology
known as high-powered microwave weapons.
At least, that is the latest buzz. Recent articles have speculated microwave
weapons could be deployed if the United States invades Iraq. But some experts
-- including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld -- say considerable work remains.
"It's been this elegant promise for decades that never quite seems to happen,"
said John Alexander, author of "Future War: Non-Lethal Weapons in Twenty-First
Century Warfare" and a retired Army colonel who directed non-lethal weapons development
at Los Alamos National Laboratory. "The check's always in the mail."
The concept behind high-powered microwave weapons is simple. A burst of electromagnetic
energy is created and directed at an enemy's electronics. The force burns them
out much like a lightning strike can destroy home appliances.
Challenges, though, lie in a number of areas, according to several experts.
For example, delivering the weapons would likely be done by cruise missiles
or unmanned aerial vehicles to help get close to the target. That requires making
the weapons not only high powered, but also rugged and relatively small, which
Air Force Col. Eileen Walling labeled "extremely challenging and technically difficult"
in a paper she wrote in 2000 on the weapons.
Alexander explained another problem: unpredictability, even when everything
"Electrical components are really rather tricky," he said. "You can put the
same amount of energy into 10 identical targets and you can destroy two of them,
upset five of them and, in three of them, nothing happens."
High-powered microwave weapons are one component of a broader category known
as directed energy weapons that includes lasers.
"When people are talking about high-powered microwave weapons, they're not
talking about a single device like the stealth bomber," said John Pike, director
of globalsecurity.org, a Washington-area policy organization seeking to reduce
reliance on nuclear weapons. "Rather, they're talking about a physical principle
and an effect which can be generated a number of different ways for a number of
Most of the Defense Department's work on high-powered microwave weapons takes
place at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, N.M..
"We are looking at different sources and devices that can produce that microwave
energy and propel it," said Rich Garcia, a spokesman for the project where nearly
all of the work is classified.
Researchers also are exploring ways to block incoming high-powered microwave
weapons. That will require something of a super surge protector, experts point
out, because the blasts are so intense and brief they can escape detection.
The former Soviet Union once was deeply involved in exploring high-powered
microwave weapons, but it is now thought Russia is no longer pursuing them. Other
nations believed to be conducting research are China, Great Britain and France.
Earlier this month, the widely respected magazine Aviation Week & Space Technology
printed an article stating that "an attack on Iraq is expected to see the first
use of high-power microwave weapons..."
The New York Post, citing unnamed U.S. military officials, reported yesterday
that a preliminary Iraq battle plan "outlined for President Bush last week calls
for the most extensive use of electronic and psychological warfare in history
-- including secret new electromagnetic pulse weapons to disable Saddam (Hussein)'s
entire command and control structure."
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