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[infowar.de] LAT 08.12.02: 'Sci-Fi' Weapons Going To War
Los Angeles Times
December 8, 2002
'Sci-Fi' Weapons Going To War
By William M. Arkin
On April 30, 2001, more than 30 square miles of the rolling Maryland
countryside that make up the Aberdeen Proving Grounds were cleared of all
nonessential personnel for the first full-scale test of a new weapon.
Planners also took care to remove all unnecessary electronic equipment,
because electronic equipment was exactly what the new weapon was designed
At 6:13 p.m., the antenna on the exotic new device was switched on and a
high-powered beam of microwaves was fired at a nearby truck -- the first
field deployment of a "directed energy" weapon. It fried the truck's
ignition and air-fuel mixing system, bringing the hapless vehicle to a halt.
About the same time, at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico, field
demonstrations were being wrapped up on another microwave weapon, this one
mounted on a truck and designed to inflict intense pain on human skin. The
weapon sprang from a program devoted to what military researchers call
Now, a year and a half later, an enormous effort is underway to move these
speed-of-light weapons from the realm of research to combat readiness. The
same is true for an array of exotic new weapons, including new generations
of so-called "agent defeat" bombs. Among the latter is a guided cluster
bomb that scatters 4,000 titanium rods capable of penetrating chemical and
biological bunkers and storage tanks with lethal effect. Most promising is
a new incendiary device that generates a firestorm so intense it cannot be
quenched with water.
What lies behind this rush to bring these exotic new weapons into the
American arsenal is the Bush administration's almost obsessive
determination to eradicate nuclear, chemical and biological weapons in Iraq
-- and potentially in other rogue states -- as part of its war on terrorism.
The new devices, along with the development of highly secret special
operations units and new tactics, are intended to help the armed forces
seize or neutralize the so-called weapons of mass destruction (WMD) with
greater speed and security -- as well as with less damage to surrounding
areas or people, and less danger of inadvertently spreading toxic materials.
There are risks, however, because some of these new weapons could arguably
be construed as violating established codes of wartime conduct. And the
risks of a backlash, whether at home or abroad, are magnified by the
administration's almost total refusal to talk about what it is doing and
thereby build public understanding and support.
Unfortunately, one side effect of framing the war on terrorism in terms of
weapons of mass destruction is that it instills in government officials a
sense of moral certainty so great that they feel no need to explain or
And, for all the talk of withering airstrikes on thousands of Iraqi targets
and of armored divisions racing toward Baghdad, what really distinguishes
Washington's preparation for war with Iraq is its focus on finding and
destroying Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction.
Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul D. Wolfowitz made this crystal clear last
week when he said, "Our goal is to achieve the disarmament of Iraqi weapons
of mass destruction, peacefully if possible, voluntarily if possible, by
force if necessary."
And the administration clearly sees high-powered microwave, or HPM, weapons
and other such devices as potentially useful in achieving that goal. When
Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld was asked at an August press
briefing how promising he considered HPM technology, he replied in his
characteristically elliptical way by recalling the unexpected emergence of
unmanned aerial drones in the Afghanistan war.
"You never know," he said. Drones "that were used in Afghanistan had not
reached their full development. In the normal order of things, when you
invest in research and development, you don't have any intention or
expectations that one would use it. On the other hand, the real world
intervenes from time to time."
The real world that drives current war planning is the absolute imperative
of thwarting Iraqi use of chemical or biological weapons.
For many years, the military and the defense industry have dreamed of
directed-energy weapons -- lasers, microwaves and electromagnetic pulses
that would operate in milliseconds and leapfrog over the current
generations of conventional and nuclear weapons.
Microwave weapons work by producing an intense surge of energy, like a
lightning bolt, that short-circuits electrical connections, interferes with
computer motherboards, destroys memory chips and damages other electronic
components. As antipersonnel weapons, active-denial HPMs send a narrow beam
of energy that penetrates about 1/64th of an inch into the skin, where
nerves that cause pain are located. By instantaneously heating the skin to
above 50 degrees Centigrade (122 degrees Fahrenheit), the microwaves
inflict intense pain; often, the reaction they produce is panic. "All the
glossy slide presentations in the world cannot prepare you for what to
expect when you step in the beam," a high-ranking officer commented last
year after experiencing it. His account was contained in military documents.
As a result of the attacks of Sept. 11, these and other highly classified
HPM prototypes are being evaluated for use against facilities involving
weapons of mass destruction. "We are looking for a boutique of
capabilities," Sue Payton, deputy undersecretary of Defense for advanced
systems and concepts, told the Pentagon press corps in March, describing
the agent-defeat mission. HPMs are being tested against mock targets with
the hope of being able to disable them with a minimum of blast effects,
civilian death or external physical damage, military sources say.
In fact, HPM weapons technology has now returned to its nuclear roots. In
the mid-1980s, the Air Force's Strategic Air Command called for a new
weapon able to protect storage bunkers from mobs of anti-nuclear
protesters. A "repel demonstrator" device using high-powered microwaves was
built and tested in 1996. The focus of the program shifted to crowd control
missions for places such as Somalia and Bosnia; two vehicle-mounted
prototypes were tested in New Mexico and built before Sept. 11.
While these devices can perform at close quarters, developers of long-range
HPM weapons still have had to overcome huge problems in making them
combat-ready. They require large power sources. They are small and lack
ruggedness. And they have a tendency to inadvertently harm friendly forces.
In April 1999, the Joint Command and Control Warfare Center oversaw the
first military HPM weapon successfully demonstrated against electronics on
a small scale. The prototype was described at the time as "elegant, safe,
well built, and user friendly." Last October, a Defense Department briefing
extolled its ability to stop vehicles at hundreds of meters, and military
sources hint that at least three different prototypes are available for
what might be one-time use in Iraq.
Meantime, the Pentagon has not put all its eggs in the technology basket.
It is training special combat units too.
Since Sept. 11, the mission of the U.S. Special Operations Command has
focused on combating terrorism and countering weapons as dual priorities.
The command's mission, according to Defense Department documents, is to
"prevent/limit/minimize the development, possession and employment of
weapons of mass destruction [and] to seize, destroy, render safe, capture
or recover WMD [weapons of mass destruction]."
The use of Special Forces in this role actually has its roots in the Cold
War, when the still-top-secret Delta Force was created. In fact, its first
"certifying" exercise, code-named Joshua Junction, took place at a mock
nuclear weapons facility on Jackass Flats at the Nevada Test Site. In that
exercise, Delta Force teams were to recover a stolen U.S. nuclear weapon
from a Middle East terrorist group. Over more than 20 years, what is now
called the Joint Special Operations Command has honed its ability to
conduct surgical missions against WMD production, storage and other
facilities, using techniques and weapons designed to minimize environmental
damage and the danger of dispersal.
Putting new weapons together with these highly trained teams of special
operators, Pentagon planners have developed detailed scenarios for dealing
with any WMD facilities encountered in Iraq.
Unmanned vehicles with special sensors keyed to detect radioactive or
chemical emissions would scout the site. HPMs would then be employed.
Spreading soundlessly along water pipes, air vents and antennas, they would
attack electronic equipment, causing the facility to freeze up. HPMs might
also be used to drive the enemy out of bunkers and other secure sites
without the destruction and possible collateral damage that come with high
Cluster and smart bombs could also bring about pinpoint destruction of
above-ground facilities. New incendiaries, combined with penetrating
munitions and chemicals, could burn up chemical or biological agents. Under
a program originally dubbed Vulcan Fire, the Navy and Lockheed Martin are
furiously working to field 20 inter-metallic incendiaries. Called
HTI-J-1000, these penetrator weapons combine high-temperature explosives to
ignite and burn chemical agents, with disinfectant chlorine and acids to
neutralize biological agents.
Many of the boutique weapons and special operations remain highly
classified not only to preserve the element of surprise, but also because
-- politically -- they are highly controversial.
This year's classified Nuclear Posture Review talked of a classified weapon
under development that uses "radiological neutralization" of
chemical/biological materials in production or storage facilities.
"Radiological neutralization" suggests something awfully close to a nuclear
weapon. And HPMs intended to destroy military electronics and disrupt
civilian electrical power systems might also knock out electrical service
to hospitals, for instance, and attack backup generators. Even people with
pacemakers might be affected.
Similarly, high-tech antipersonnel devices must inflict pain while avoiding
burning, eye damage or other prolonged effects that could be considered
"unnecessary suffering," which is banned under existing treaties and
The Bush administration justifies use of the new weapons on grounds that
hitting WMD sites with conventional weapons might create large-scale
disasters, because hazardous chemicals, toxins and biological agents could
be dispersed over a wide area.
This line of thinking may stem in part from the fact that, during the 1991
Gulf War, when Hussein had an enormous chemical and biological arsenal, the
United States took huge risks in attacking WMD sites. American intelligence
had no idea which targets actually contained chemical and biological
agents; only after the war did we discover how little correlation there'd
been between actual and suspected WMD sites.
Today, U.S. intelligence about the location of Hussein's illicit materials
is no better. The hope is that Iraq will do something to "expose" its
weapons, providing the opportunity for a clear American shot. The goal --
reducing the risk of nuclear, chemical or biological disaster -- is important.
But good intentions may not be a good enough answer if units such as Delta
Force are sent into action with weapons and tactics that appear to cross
the threshold of what is considered lawful and acceptable. Especially if
the U.S. government does not begin to make its case to the American public
and the rest of the world until after the fact.
Secrecy seems to be the Bush administration's favorite operating style. In
the end, however, events may prove that its momentary convenience comes at
a heavy price.
William M. Arkin is a military affairs analyst who writes regularly for
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