When 'Physics Gets in the Way'

By Rick Atkinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 2, 2007

BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan -- No silver bullet has seemed more alluring in the battle against IEDs than so-called directed-energy weapons, designed to zap roadside bombs with lasers, microwaves or electrical bolts.

"Darth Vader stuff," Rear Adm. Arch Macy calls them. But as commander of the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Macy knows firsthand that the actual performance of such weapons has not lived up to their promise.

"It's very difficult to smoke things, as it turns out," he said. "Despite what people think, there aren't giant machines that can cut buildings in half and irradiate cities. The physics gets in the way."

Among the cautionary tales cited by Macy and other Pentagon officials is that of a zapper called JIN -- Joint IED Neutralizer -- built by Ionatron, a high-tech start-up founded in Tucson in 2002.

Responding to a call from then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz for U.S. industry to join the IED struggle, Ionatron sent Wolfowitz a video in early 2005 showing a generator, a Tesla coil to concentrate voltage and an aluminum probe from which little lightning bolts appeared to detonate blasting caps like those often used in bombs.

"I think this is hot," Dobie McArthur, Wolfowitz's executive assistant, told Brig. Gen. Joseph L. Votel, director of the Joint IED Task Force. "We need to move on this." Although skeptical, Votel dispatched a technical team to Arizona on Jan. 31, 2005.

Ionatron had originally proposed developing a laser weapon to fry a bomb's circuitry. But given significant engineering challenges and an overriding sense of urgency from the Pentagon, the company put aside that approach. The device examined by Votel's team -- originally called Pointman but soon changed to JIN in a play on the Arabic word for genie -- used "electrostatic discharge" to throw half a million volts into the ground to "pre-detonate" the blasting caps.

In the demonstration near Tucson, the caps were exposed on the ground's surface, rather than buried or hidden, as bombs typically are in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to several officials.

"We don't think this is as far along as they say it is," the technicians told Votel. The team returned to Arizona the next month for further tests, which also suggested that JIN was not a countermeasure that could be deployed quickly. That spring, Votel, McArthur and a delegation from Wolfowitz's office flew to Arizona for still another demonstration. Votel and his technicians remained skeptical. How would discharges of half a million volts affect power lines in Iraq? Gas lines? Soldiers? But to an NBC News crew also invited to view the test, Votel declared: "This is pretty out of the box, and -- this is what we're looking for, quite honestly."

On April 30, 2005, Wolfowitz signed a memorandum that called for funneling $30 million into JIN as a countermeasure with the potential to "dramatically alter the balance of power on IEDs."

Bold claims began to circulate in Arizona. "This will save lives the minute it gets" to Iraq, said Thomas C. Dearmin, Ionatron's chief executive, according to the Journal of Electronic Defense. "If you get enough of these out there, you will eliminate the IED as we know it." JIN could be safely mounted on an unmanned vehicle and operated remotely by soldiers in a trailing vehicle as far as a mile away, Dearmin told the Arizona Daily Star, which also quoted him as telling financial analysts that the Pentagon had requested pricing proposals for up to 2,000 units.

JIN enthusiasts suggested that the device could operate at 35 mph and destroy roadside bombs 1,000 yards away. Dearmin, who severed all his ties with Ionatron earlier this year, did not return phone calls asking for comment.

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