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GlobalSecurity.org In the News

Weekly Alibi V.13 No.49 | December 2 - December 8, 2004

Active Denial System

The search for new hi-tech weaponry brings defense dollars to local labs and a few ethical questions as well

By Leslie Clark

Follow the bare, concrete lined walls in the basement of the University of New Mexico Engineering Building and you'll find the signs forbidding anyone to enter the laboratory of Professor Edl Schamiloglu without proper authorization. Due to X-ray generation and high voltage safety, researchers and students who work there are required to wear a radiation badge, just like people who work in comparable science facilities.

It's common practice for UNM laboratories to restrict access for myriad reasons, such as the presence of volatile chemicals or lasers. In Dr. Schamiloglu's case, his research has led to generating intense blasts of electromagnetic waves in the microwave frequency for what is known in military parlance as the perfect weapon. In other words, his research has been utilized by military labs to develop what has been called the E-bomb.

"My group, because of its sustained technical accomplishments, has a reputation for its technical excellence in the field of intense electron beam driven sources of electromagnetic energy," explains Schamiloglu. "E-bomb might sound sexy, but we have no E-bombs."

At UNM, the professor and his students use electron beam accelerators to conduct experiments to convert electron kinetic energy to electromagnetic radiation. In usual scholarly fashion, they employ computer simulations and analytical modeling with their experiments to test hypotheses. As one would expect, it is technical work, where the findings eventually aim to be published in scholarly journals.

"There are researchers in the world that are interested in developing High Power Microwaves weapons for electronic attack applications," says Schamiloglu. "However, these researchers work in classified facilities in the Department of Defense, Department of Energy and other government laboratories. The only way we contribute to their activities is if one of these researchers happens to read one of our scholarly articles and finds the information useful to his or her work."

Regardless of the purpose of academic compared to military research, the federal government's E-bomb application hopes to create currents powerful enough to melt circuitry without causing injury to people. If detonated close enough, the E-bomb could shut down electrical grids and communications systems and stop vehicles with electronic control systems. Just how destructive the E-bomb is depends on the strength of its source, the altitude it's fired from and how far away it is from the target.

The People Zapper

Recently, the Pentagon announced the possible use of a low energy variation of the E-bomb in Iraq. The weapon, called "the sheriff," was developed at Albuquerque's Kirtland Air Force Base as part of the Air Force Lab's Active Denial System. It's important to note that the design employs a different form of electromagnetic technology than what is being researched at UNM.

Still, the weapon, which looks like a backyard satellite dish, would be mounted on an armored Humvee and used to stop advancing adversaries by generating high frequency radiation in small doses. The technology has been referred to in the press as a "non-lethal people zapper" to be used as a crowd control device, one that in theory would have been a useful deterrent in a case similar to the "Blackhawk down" incident in Somalia in 1995.

An Air Force Fact Sheet says the Active Denial System "projects a focused, speed-of-light millimeter wave energy beam to induce an intolerable heating sensation on an adversary's skin and cause that individual to be repelled without injury."

According to globalsecurity.org, military and civilian employees have volunteered to be subjected to the device during experimental trials conducted at Kirtland. "All testing is being conducted with strict observance of the procedures, laws and regulations governing animal and human experimentation," the report states. "Prior to participating in the program, all volunteers are fully informed of the purpose and nature of the tests and of any reasonably foreseeable risks or discomforts expected from the research."

Louis Slesin, editor of Microwave News, a newsletter focused on nonionizing radiation technology, "says that possible injuries, particularly to the eye, could lead to stopping further development and actual deployment of the device-as the Pentagon did in the mid-1990s when it was trying to develop blinding lasers," according to globalsecurity.org. "The real question is whether it will go the way of the lasers," Slesin says. "People will get out of the beam, but [injury to the eyes] depends on how much exposure they get," adding, "the only people who are doing health research on the effects of electromagnetic radiation are the people who are developing this weapon-the Air Force Lab. They're the only people who have any money in the United States to do research on the health effects, and they're in firm control of the [safety] standard-setting process. That's a clear conflict."

Beyond this conflict, another obvious question arises: Where and when would such a device be employed? Martin Lee, writing in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, after covering a Pentagon unveiling of the project in April, 2001, suggests some possibilities: "Zap-happy Pentagon strategists envision using the Active Denial System in various operational settings where a small number of American troops or military police might be confronted by a horde of angry civilians. Border patrols, 'peacekeeping' missions, urban riots, and domestic disturbances have been flagged as situations in which such a device could prove handy."

Kirtland Air Force Base is leading research in high-powered narrowband weapons, as well. According to Kirtland's website, whereas a typical microwave oven generates less than 1,500 watts of power, researchers are working with equipment that can generate millions of watts of power. Heavy reliance on electronic components in today's weaponry makes high-power microwave weapons attractive. High-Power Microwaves have a potential in command and control warfare, in suppressing enemy air defenses, and against tactical aircraft or unmanned aerial vehicles, according to the website.

Compact, high-energy pulsed power is an enabling technology for many advanced weapon concepts. The Kirtland facility is designed to play a major role in the Air Force Research Laboratory's development of next generation, high-energy pulsed-power devices, along with assistance from military contractor Raytheon Corporation.

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