By MARK THOMPSON
January 19, 2003; 10:31 a.m. EST
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 humans.”
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.”