Cox News Service August 14, 2002
POTENT MICROWAVE WEAPONS' IMPACT COULD BE FELT IN FUTURE CONFLICTS
By GEORGE EDMONSON
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 goes right.
"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 different purposes."
Most of the Defense Department's work on high-powered microwave weapons takes place at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, N.M., where research facilities are designed to handle high radiation and blasts.
"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 avidly 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 Wednesday 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's entire command and control structure."
And in December, Michael Booen, vice president of Directed Energy Weapons at Raytheon Co., told OpticsReport, a journal aimed at investors, that some of its high-powered microwave systems were "on the verge of use today" and "in the next three to four years, several HPM systems will be out in the field."
But last week, when Rumsfeld was asked at a Pentagon briefing about using directed energy and high-powered microwave weapons, he characterized them as being in "varying early stages."
He noted, though, that unmanned aerial vehicles deployed successfully in Afghanistan had then been in a developmental stage and not authorized for use.
"In the normal order of things, when you invest in research and development and begin a developmental project, you don't have any intention or expectations that one would use it," he said. "On the other hand, the real world intervenes from time to time, and you reach in there and take something out that is still in a developmental stage, and you might use it. "
Copyright 2002 Cox Enterprises, Inc.