America's Ultra-Secret Weapon
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AMERICA'S ULTRA-SECRET WEAPON
By Mark Thompson
Sunday, January 19, 2003
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
HPMs can unleash in a flash as much electrical power -- 2 billion watts or
more -- as the Hoover Dam generates in 24 hours. Capacitors aboard the
missile discharge an energy pulse -- moving at the speed of light and
impervious to bad weather -- in 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 in hospitals 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 weapons -- known as soft bombs -- against
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."
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