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[infowar.de] Microwave weapons: the dangers of first use
Microwave weapons: the dangers of first use
International Herald Tribune
Monday, March 17, 2003
KUWAIT CITY Will they use it or not? If the United States decides to
attack Iraq, military analysts say a key decision for Washington will be
whether to deploy a revolutionary and secretive weapon that is designed
to spare human beings but destroy computers and telecommunications
Variations of the device - which works by sending intense bursts of
energy through anything electronic - have undergone advanced field
testing by the U.S. military in recent years, and many experts believe
the United States now has the capability to use it in combat.
Those who support use of the weapon say it is tailor-made for this
looming conflict: The high-powered microwaves emitted by the device do
not harm humans and thus could be used against Iraqi defenses in densely
If the target is buried underground - as many sensitive Iraqi
installations are believed to be - the microwaves can reach the
equipment by traveling through electrical cables, telephone lines or
even seals or seams in concrete.
But critics say rolling out the weapon for the first time could trigger
an arms race not seen since the dawn of the nuclear age. By showing
other nations that this highly secretive program has produced a viable
and effective weapon, politicians from other countries could be
convinced to beef up their own development of such devices.
"There is no doubt that these are the weapons of the future," said
Robert Hewson, editor of Jane's Air-Launched Weapons. "But it's a real
Pandora's box technology."
The main danger of using a high-powered microwave weapon, say Hewson and
others, is that the United States would be showing its hand in the
development of a type of technology that might ultimately be most
harmful to itself and other developed, wealthy nations.
The countries most vulnerable to these weapons are not Iraq or North
Korea but societies where computer chips are indispensable for daily
life. Some analysts have called it the perfect terrorist weapon.
By the same token, in military terms the most vulnerable army to such
"chip-frying" weapons is probably that of the United States and not its
mainly low-tech adversaries in the world today.
The nightmare scenario for the U.S. military - however unlikely - would
be that the weapon would malfunction, fall into unfriendly hands and be
taken apart and studied by an unfriendly government or terrorist group.
Skeptics also say there are basic questions about the weapon's side
effects. Will the microwaves travel farther than expected and wipe out
the electronics in a nearby hospital ward? What about people who have
pacemakers? Would their devices stop working? In its current state of
development, the device would most likely be delivered by a cruise
missile, which also suggests that it is not as benign as advertised.
Three years ago a colonel in the U.S. Air Force, Eileen Walling, wrote a
report saying that secret research on this new generation of so-called
directed energy devices had reached the point of producing "active
weapons" for the U.S. military. Walling, a former director of the air
force's high power microwave program, argued for an acceleration of
research in the field precisely because it could be so effective, both
for defensive purposes - causing the electronics of an incoming missile
to go haywire, for example - and offensive: taking out an enemy's
command and control structure.
"Except for the standard rifle, gun, knife, or grenade," she wrote,
"virtually all military equipment contains some electronics."
But Walling also warned of the dangers of this technology. There was a
long-term threat, she said, that other governments would develop such
weapons and thus be potentially able to neutralize virtually every
electronics system in the U.S. arsenal.
The "more immediate problem," she said, was "the potential for
fratricide or suicide from friendly microwave weapons." In layman's
terms, these devices could backfire and destroy the electronics of the
army that deploys them.
In the years since Walling's report, the U.S. military is reported to
have stepped up testing of the devices.
According to William Arkin, a defense analyst, the U.S. military tested
a microwave device last April in Maryland. The weapon's target was a
truck with its engine running. When an antenna on the microwave device
was switched on, it "fried the truck's ignition and air-fuel mixing
system, bringing the hapless vehicle to a halt," Arkin said in an
article that appeared in The Los Angeles Times.
The advantage of microwave weapons is that they can destroy or damage
electronics whether they are on or off at the time of attack.
Today, even though the United States faces a vastly inferior and
under-equipped Iraqi Army, military planners are eager to test the
weaponry, defense experts say.
"We know there are certainly people itching to get them out of the labs
and try them out as quickly as possible," said Hewson of Jane's.
The U.S. military declined to comment on whether or not the weapon might
be used in Iraq. But the U.S. secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld,
seemed to indicate their use was possible when asked last August about
the weapons. Rumsfeld said just as unmanned aerial drones had been
rushed into operation in Afghanistan, so, too, could microwave devices.
The military "may not plan on using something yet," Rumsfeld said. But
he, added: "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." There are several ways to deliver the
high-powered microwaves to a target, including simply pointing a
high-powered antenna, mounted on an aircraft or unmanned drone toward
But experts say this technology is not yet perfected. A more likely
scenario will be delivery of the weapon via cruise missile.
The energy from the explosion of the missile would serve to power the
microwave device. The explosion would also destroy the device thus
keeping the technology out of enemy hands. Among other countries
believed to be working on directed energy weapons are Britain, China and
Russian scientists were at one time the leaders in the field because the
Soviet Union believed the development of a device that could destroy
electronic equipment was the ultimate weapon against the United States.
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