Top secret bomb targets enemy electronics

Pulse: This `weapon of electrical mass destruction' would have to be needed badly to risk revealing its existence.

Medicine & Science

March 31, 2003|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

In a war where the United States is trying to minimize the loss of innocent lives, defense analysts and correspondents in Iraq are watching for one of the Pentagon's most secret weapons -- the "E-bomb."

It's an electromagnetic pulse weapon that kills the enemy's electronics, but leaves people unharmed. The Pentagon won't talk about it, but it's widely believed that the first of these devices have left the government's "black" laboratories.

Until war planners decide E-bombs are needed badly enough to risk disclosing their existence, "they are being kept under very close wraps, much like the way they debated using the F-117 [Stealth fighter] in the Gulf War," said Daniel Goure, vice president of Virginia's Lexington Institute, a security think-tank.

E-bombs are the simplest members of a family of still-secret "directed energy" weapons, and probably the nearest to deployment.

They cause damage similar to lightning strikes on power or telephone lines, which can "fry" sensitive circuits and chips if they're not fully shielded or protected by surge arrestors.

But E-bombs are more powerful than lightning. In February 2000, Col. Eileen M. Walling, an Air Force analyst, described an E-weapon test that produced 20 gigawatts of power for a few billionths of a second -- 10 times the output of the Hoover Dam.

The surges can penetrate deep bunkers and induce spikes of thousands of volts in electronics typically designed to handle just a few. They can cause temporary failures and data loss, or complete meltdowns, even when devices are turned off.

Writing in the mid-1990s, Australian defense analyst Carlo Kopp dubbed the E-bomb a "weapon of electrical mass destruction."

People aren't injured unless they're close enough to be hurt by the bombs' explosive triggers, Kopp said. But "their use offers a very high payoff in attacking fundamental information processing and communication facilities."

The simplest and most fully developed type of E-bomb is said to be the "explosively pumped flux compression generator," or FCG, which produces 10 to 100 times the power of a lightning bolt, according to Kopp. Here's how it works:

Packed inside a cruise missile, aerial bomb, artillery shell or even a land mine is a cylinder of high explosive wrapped in a coil of heavy copper wire.

Batteries and capacitors, analogous to those in an electronic photo flash, create an intense magnetic field in the coil. Some distance above the target, just as the magnetic field reaches peak power, the explosives are set off.

The blast wave moves from one end of the bomb to the other. It short-circuits the coil and compresses the magnetic field, causing an intense, low-frequency electromagnetic pulse to surge outward as the bomb blows apart.

The pulse expands at the speed of light, inducing an electrical surge in any power cables, telecommunications lines and antennas it encounters.

The "spike" follows the wiring to the sensitive electronic components indoors, burning them out. Damage also can occur when the expanding magnetic field "couples" directly with internal wiring or cables connecting several devices.

It's not a perfect technology. E-bombs have a limited range, and it's hard to measure the damage after an attack.

Nor can the bomb discriminate between the enemy and any "friendly" electronics within its range. Shielding those friendly devices, Goure said, is extraordinarily difficult and costly.

In a relatively advanced society like Iraq's, war planners must consider the cost of replacing the damaged infrastructure once the war is over.

The technology also could be turned against us by enemy nations and terrorists. Their relative simplicity, Kopp warned, "suggests that any nation, with even a 1940s technology base, once in possession of engineering drawings and specifications for such weapons, could manufacture them."

He estimated that a two-stage FCG could be built for as little as $1,000 to $2,000 dollars in the West, and for less at Third World wages. "The possibility of less developed nations mass-producing such weapons is alarming," he said.

However, while making an E-bomb may be easy, triggering a catastrophe with it might not be.

"There are a few targets, but only a few for the U.S., where this could be very effective at the kind of catastrophic terrorism level," said Lexington's Goure. Elsewhere, it would merely "annoy the hell out of you."

"You wouldn't want something like that going off on Wall Street in the middle of a trading day," he said. "Would you survive? Yeah. But it would be really chaotic for a while."

Other weapons under development include airborne lasers that can knock out anti-aircraft missiles and ground-based lasers to protect planes during takeoff and landing.

The military is also testing a Humvee-mounted microwave weapon that burns the skin of enemy soldiers. "It's worse than a sunburn but not as bad as getting a hotfoot," Goure said.

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