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Reuters February 2, 2003

U.S. may debut secret microwave weapon versus Iraq

By Will Dunham

WASHINGTON, Feb 2 (Reuters) - It substitutes pure energy for munitions. It is designed to achieve military objectives without killing people or wrecking buildings.

And Saddam Hussein's armed forces may be chosen as the first target of the U.S. military's new secret weapon.

The U.S. Air Force is developing a high-power microwave, or HPM, weapon that generates a massive electromagnetic pulse capable of frying the insides of digital electronic systems, disabling enemy military equipment, analysts said.

While the weapon is top-secret and details about it are classified, analysts said its development is far enough along that they expect the U.S. military to use an HPM weapon for the first time in the possible war with Iraq.

"The virtue of high-power microwave weapons is that they can shut down virtually any military electronics system while producing no causalities and minimal physical damage," said military analyst Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute think tank. "There's always the possibility that you'll get the scant general with a pacemaker."

These weapons could be used to disable enemy command and control centers, communications facilities, air defense radars, chemical or biological weapons storage or production sites, and sophisticated vehicles, missiles and aircraft, analysts said.

"What that means is that the enemy can't see you coming, they can't hear themselves talking and they can't find their friendly forces. They are essentially deaf, dumb and blind. But they're alive," Thompson added.

Work on high-power microwave technology is being conducted at the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory's Directed Energy Directorate at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico.

HPM weapons, at least the rudimentary form that may be used in Iraq, are likely to be delivered to the target by cruise missiles or perhaps unmanned aircraft, analysts said. Delivery by manned aircraft poses problems because the electromagnetic pulse HPM weapons generate could ruin the electronic systems of the U.S. jet, possibly causing it to crash, analysts added.

Shielding U.S. military electronic systems from the effects of microwave weapons will be key in the future, analysts said.


The devices generate a momentary, intense energy pulse producing a gargantuan power surge -- millions of watts -- that would fry practically any modern electronic device within a modest range of hundreds of yards (meters).

The weapon, of course, would not distinguish between electronics used by an enemy military or those used in, for example, a hospital. The surge itself would not harm people.

"The footprint of these is not all that big, which has both pros and cons depending on the issue you're looking at. If you want significant military effect, it may be limited. On the other hand, if you're worried about collateral impact, if you know where the hospital is, you can limit that effect as well," said military analyst Mike Vickers of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

Vickers said use of them in an Iraq war is "quite likely."

"It's not really that high-tech," added retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Piers Wood of the GlobalSecurity.org think tank.

"You've got a microwave oven at home probably that generates a pulse of heat. But the point is that this is not such a ground-breaking paradigm shift as much as an engineering problem: getting the equipment small enough to carry around the battlefield in various platforms," Wood said.

High-power microwave could be useful against some of an enemy's most unreachable targets, analysts said.

"A fabulous target would be a deeply buried command bunker or chemical-biological weapons bunker that we weren't certain that we could dig out of the ground with conventional explosives but which would have to have communications and power lines going into and out of it. It's almost impossible to buffer those lines against a power surge," Thompson said.

Rich Garcia, director of public affairs for the Directed Energy Directorate, said the high-power microwave work at Kirtland is an offshoot of research done in the early 1980s.

"At that time, we were doing a lot of work in studying the effects of nuclear detonations, and so electromagnetic pulse is an offshoot of nuclear detonation. High-power microwave sort of grew out of that," Garcia added.

HPM weapons are categorized as directed-energy weapons.

Garcia said the directed-energy unit, which also is working on laser weapons, space-based optics and plasma projectiles some have likened to firing a bolt of lightning, has about 600 employees with an annual budget of about $120 million.

U.S. defense officials publicly have suggested that a high-power microwave weapon might be used in the near term.

"You never know," said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld when asked at a briefing about the promise of such weapons.

"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," Rumsfeld added.

Analysts stressed that HPM weapons are a work in progress.

"The military likes to use wartime for experimentation," said Philip Coyle, assistant defense secretary and director of operational test and evaluation from 1994-2001. "And there's nothing wrong with that. So they might go out and try it once. But I wouldn't expect to see any kind of usage where the military really depended on it for its results."

Copyright 2003, Reuters