Turning Up the Heat in War
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, March 15, 1999 There are MILO, Gyro BWO, GEM-II and RKO. They are not characters from the new Star Wars adventure.
There is a Hindenberg line. But it has nothing to do with World War I.
And there is COBRA, neither a snake nor a health insurance plan.
All are U.S. military programs, experiments in high power microwave technology, electronic pulse generators, pulsers and radiating antennae.
The news media may be filled with stories of terrorists armed with electromagnetic bombs and high energy radio frequency (HERF) guns ready to zap phones, banks, and electrical grids. But the United States is most advanced in this field, and what appears at this time to be the most significant radio-frequency device of the future is a U.S. high-power microwave (HPM) weapon.
The United States is in the final stages of developing powerful and compact new HPM weapons which will, in theory, shut down air defenses and communications, pulsate aircraft from the skies, throw missiles off course, disable vehicles on the ground, and detonate fuses in exposed munitions.
The greatest excitement, though, is for the potential that HPMs have to destroy enemy data infrastructure, the target in any information warfare attack. "The electron," former CIA Director John Deutch says, "is the ultimate precision-guided weapon."
A Destructive Pulse
The concept for HPM weapons is simple and the general phenomenon has been known since the explosion of the first atomic bombs, when huge electromagnetic pulses were observed. Metallic objects such as wires serve as channels for radio frequency energy. Thus, when a high-power microwave weapon is directed at those channels, it has the potential to burn them out.
At extremely high levels of power, pulses of high-intensity energy internally excite components, generate intense heat, fuse or melt electronics and destroy circuits. In other words, the pulses fry enemy electronics in a fraction of a second, even if the target systems are turned off.
HPM weapons have come a long way in the past decade. Miniaturization of components, more efficient power supplies and advances in generators, electronic pulse forming, energy conversion, and directional antennas now make weapons of significant strength possible.
Advances in HPM generation have also coincided with the proliferation of solid state electronics, which are much more vulnerable to destruction by pulse than older technologies.
In 1997, the Defense Department designated High Powered Microwaves as an Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration, militarese for a high profile research project. The objective, according to knowledgeable sources, is to fashion compact, 500-pound, 18-inch diameter narrow and ultrawideband (UWB) weapons. Narrow band weapons would be directed at specific frequencies, UWB would cover an extremely broad band of electronic equipment.
Recently, records have been set in power output. The research suggests workable pulse weapons in the multi-gigawatt range (billions of watts per micro-second pulse). This is equivalent to the power generated by dozens of power plants, as much as 1,000 times current electronic warfare levels.
Mayhem in Mayberry
However, the Defense Department program officer responsible for the HPM demonstration set me straight. Mayberry is the nickname scientists have given to the area where HPMs are being tested. The buildings there, it seems, are overrun with mice.
Where is Mayberry? The officer can't say, and for that matter the entire demonstration is classified (it is the only Defense Department Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration that is.)
Because the Directed Energy Directorate of the Air Force Research Laboratory in New Mexico is the lead agency for HPM research and development, I was sure Mayberry was there. The Directorate (formerly Phillips Laboratory) operates a gigantic outdoor HPM test range tucked into a canyon in the Manzano Mountains outside Albuquerque. But the lab denies that it is Mayberry. Inquiries regarding the Army's HPM Research Facility in Adelphi, MD went unanswered.
Money in Moscow
What's with all the secrecy?
Part of the answer is the information warfare "attack capability" that an HPM most likely represents in the short term. The HPM information warfare effect has been designated as the Joint Chiefs of Staff's number one weapons development priority. Sources insist that the United States is close to fabricating a workable computer and electronics attack weapon that could be built into an airplane, truck, missile or drone. The authoritative trade magazine Aviation Week and Space Technology reported last year that the Air Force has already tested an experimental HPM generator mounted on a cruise missile.
The second sensitivity is the degree to which U.S. scientists have managed to form collaborations with Russian laboratories to appropriate the best technologies and techniques that the Soviet military laboratories once developed but can no longer sustain. Take for example, MILO, for the magnetically insulated linear oscillator (MILO). Invented in the United States, work was discontinued in the late 1980s. But the Soviet Union had picked up the technology and successfully continued its development.
Numerous other former Soviet devices including Andrei Sakharov's magneto-cumulative generator (MCG), an explosively driven power supply; and PAMIR-3U, a magnetohydrodynamic (MHD) generator have been purchased from the cash-starved laboratories by U.S. HPM developers.
How ironic that the very systems Russia now sells could be returned to sender as strategic weapons equivalent in power to nuclear missiles.
William M. Arkin, author of "The U.S. Military Online," is a leading expert on national security and the Internet. He lectures and writes on nuclear weapons, military matters and information warfare. An Army intelligence analyst from 1974 to 1978, Arkin currently consults for Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive, MSNBC and the Natural Resources Defense Council.
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