AS MARK THOMPSON of Time magazine writes, "Every war has its wonder weapon." And in an upcoming war against Iraq, we are told to "get ready to meet the high-power microwave." The way Thompson describes it, the "HPM" sounds almost too good to be true: They "fry the sophisticated computers and electronic gear necessary to produce, protect, store and deliver [chemical and biological] 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."
But Thompson's brief article leaves one thirsting for a bit more. Exactly how are high-power microwaves, aka "e-bombs," sent to targets? Who delivers them? In fact, who makes them? And even though HPMs are specifically designed to avoid collateral damage, what happens if you find yourself directly beneath the microwaves' rays?
HIGH-POWER MICROWAVES are currently being tested at the Air Force Research Laboratory on Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico. The laboratory is divided into directorates--one of them devoted to "directed energy." And within this directorate you will find the High Power Microwave Division. It is here that scientists are working to harness HPMs, trying to maximize their power while insuring the safety of their operators and unintended targets. They work in two facilities: One of them contains "Shiva Star," the Air Force's largest pulsed-power system that produces 120,000 volts and 10 million amps in one-millionth of a second, creating a power flow equal to a trillion watts. The other facility is found deep in the Manzano Mountains where tests are conducted not only for high-power microwaves but also high-energy plasmas.
One gets the feeling that decades from now, when our soldiers are using blasters and plasma rifles, Kirtland Air Force Base will be looked upon as this century's Los Alamos. In fact, Kirtland is also where a solid-state laser is being developed, though most experts believe its tactical application is still ten years away. Outside defense contractors are also highly involved--through intensely guarded research and development operations with names like Skunk Works (at Lockheed Martin) and Phantom Works (at Boeing)--what Daniel Goure, vice president of the Lexington Institute, calls "the black world."
If you ask the folks at the Air Force Research Laboratory, they'll tell you they "regret that there is very little that is releasable on the subject." But their fact sheets do go some length toward explaining their intentions: "Whereas a typical microwave oven generates less than 1,500 watts of power, the Division is working with equipment that can generate millions of watts of power. When microwaves encounter modern microelectronics-based systems, the results can be disastrous to the electronics--causing systems to 'burn out' and fail or function improperly. This heavy reliance on electronic components in today's weaponry makes high-power microwave weapons attractive."
How will the military deploy the HPMs? Andrew Koch, Washington bureau chief of Jane's Defence Weekly, says that at the moment, they will most likely be delivered via cruise missiles. "The missile would fly slow over a target and then emit a pulse in a single shot." That shot would zap anything electronic on the ground--and also on the cruise missile itself, making it useless thereafter. "This is the sort of high-power microwave that will be available for use in a war in Iraq."
But Koch stresses the problems of microwaves versus lasers. "Unlike a laser, high-power microwaves are a lot more difficult to control. They aren't as tunable as lasers." HPMs are emitted from sidelobes and not as a single beam. "The rays can reflect off the ground and affect the pilots above," he says. Hence the use of cruise missiles for now rather than strike fighters or even unmanned drones. (Back at Kirtland Air Force Base, however, microwave tests are already being done using F-16 fighters housed in "anechoic" chambers--rooms free of all echoes and reverberations.)
So what of the effects? Time's Mark Thompson warns of the dangers of using HPMs near hospitals or anyone wearing pacemakers. Daniel Goure of the Lexington Institute says "there is human testing going on now for some HPMs. There is also a body of medical and environmental testing data, some based on the allegations of illnesses produced by high voltage power lines." But in an article last summer in Jane's Defence Weekly, Koch and co-author Nick Cook asked a scientist familiar with the effects of high-power microwaves what would happen if someone were hit by a megawatt HPM weapon: "All the fluid in their body cells would instantly vaporise into steam. It would happen so fast, you wouldn't even be aware of it," the scientist says. "If, on the other hand, you were caught in the sidelobe of the beam, or even by a weak reflection of the main beam off a metal surface--which could easily happen in a city--you would probably suffer terrible burns as well as permanent brain damage."
Yet Koch reminds us that the reason for the e-bomb is to avoid what happened in the last Gulf War when a bomb ripped through an Iraqi military bunker that was also used as a shelter for civilians. "In this case, the e-bomb would fry the electronics on the surface but no one underground in the actual bunker would get hurt." (On the other hand, Koch says you could be harmed if you happened to be "on the surface.")
Human rights organizations and international law watchdogs will be carefully observing how HPMs are managed in a war on Iraq--ideally used against deeply buried targets and not by accident on a hospital. "I would be surprised if there weren't accusations leveled against the use of HPMs," says Goure. "Of course, the alternative, which is 2,000 pounds of high explosives, seems a lot worse to me."