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Military May Microwave Iraqi Electronic Circuits
Guy Gugliotta, Washington Post 2003-03-19

A war with Iraq could allow the United States to debut a new -- and perhaps

revolutionary -- class of weapons that can cripple an enemy's ability to fight

without harming people or destroying buildings.

They are known collectively as "high-powered microwave weapons" (HPM). They use

bursts of electromagnetic energy, delivered by low-impact bombs or "ray

gun"-like devices, to disable or destroy the electronics that control

everything from an enemy's radar to its laptops.

Although the pulse can easily incapacitate or even burn out microchips or

circuitry, it is weak enough so that humans might not even know they had been

attacked until their computers started to crash.

"These weapons are designed almost exclusively for destroying electronic

systems," said defense analyst Loren Thompson, author of a recent study on

high-powered microwaves and other "directed-energy" weapons. "They minimize

collateral damage, overkilling and wasted effort. I tend to think this could

make war more humane."

In particular, analysts point out, high-powered microwaves have an obvious

attraction in an urban setting, where noncombatants are vulnerable. Iraqi

President Saddam Hussein has concentrated his elite troops around Baghdad,

apparently intending to make a U.S.-led invasion force its way into the


"These weapons are tremendously important in the social and political realms,"

said John Arquilla, who teaches defense analysis at the Naval Postgraduate

School, in Monterey, Calif. "If the world sees the United States acting with

disproportionate force, it will be harder to make the case for an intervention

on the side of democracy."

Research on high-powered microwave weapons is centered at Kirtland Air Force

Base in Albuquerque. Officials there declined to discuss the program in

detail, but an unclassified paper prepared at the Air War College in 2000 said

that "several high-powered microwave technologies have matured to the point

where they are ready for the transition . . . to deployment as operational

weapons." Arquilla said he was "completely certain that some forms of these

will be used in the coming conflict."

Although microwaves are nonlethal, they are also indiscriminate, and could

interfere with the operation of electronic devices such as pacemakers or

sophisticated hospital equipment. From a military standpoint, the biggest

drawback is the possibility that the pulses end up damaging friendly

electronics as they rebound through a battlefield.

"Our existing military infrastructure is currently almost defenseless against

the type of energy pulse that an HPM would produce," Thompson said. "The

benefits of the information age created a vulnerability not only for our

enemies, but for ourselves."

High-powered microwave weapons make use of the same principle that causes

static to invade a car radio beneath a power line. More power on a frequency

approximating that of the radio can cause progressively worse damage, and at

some point will shut down or burn out delicate electronics. The armed forces

describe the range of possibilities as the "four D's -- deny, disrupt, damage

or destroy."

"Anything that an enemy has that uses electronics could be vulnerable," said

the University of New Mexico's Edl Schamiloglu, an electrical and computer

engineer. "Radars, computers, infrared guidance systems -- you name it."

Schamiloglu said that the United States and the then-Soviet Union long ago

recognized the potential of microwave weapons and began working on the

technology in the 1960s. Scientists had noticed that in addition to blast and

radiation effects, nuclear explosions generated extremely powerful bursts of

radio waves.

Microwaves are the highest-frequency radio waves, and the frequencies

approximate those employed in the delicate circuitry of modern digital

electronics. Until recently, microwaves were useless as weapons because early

electronics used robust low-tech components impervious to the relative shock of

a mini-microwave surge. For this reason, the Soviets outfitted their MiG

aircraft with vacuum tubes long after the tubes became obsolete, Schamiloglu


Microwave weapons today come in what Schamiloglu calls "two flavors." One,

known as an "ultrawide band" weapon, uses an explosion to provide one quick,

powerful burst of radiation over a broad range of frequencies. The likeliest

method of delivery is via cruise missile, which can get the weapon close to the

target without infecting friendly electronics.

"The chemical explosive generates a voltage spike that feeds power directly to

a wide-band antenna," Schamiloglu said. The waves travel at the speed of light,

so the microwave is beamed out by the antenna before the antenna is destroyed

by the explosion, he added.

Once the waves are on their way, they will travel along any electrical circuit

they encounter, and are particularly adept at taking advantage of enemy

antennas and other devices as capable of receiving signals as they are of

transmitting them. An antenna or other exposed sensor is called "the front


But it is not the only entrance. The emissions can also travel through cracks,

seams, metal conduits or other "back door" avenues, crawling into hardened

bunkers to disable electronics with a sudden, virtually undetectable power

jolt. The microwaves will destroy the electronics even when the equipment is

not operating.

Ultrawide band weapons are relatively simple, but have limited range because

the waves dissipate over a broad frequency spectrum. The weapons' exact

performance capabilities are classified information.

More useful for specific targets are the second "flavor" of weapons, known as

"narrow band" microwaves. Their characteristics are not publicly known, but

Schamiloglu said machines rather than bombs would deliver them. All would

likely have batteries as a power source, a large capacitor to store the power

and an antenna to fire the microwaves in a rat-a-tat burst, ray-gun style.

Narrow-band waves can be aimed at a target, making them less likely to damage

friendly electronics. As a result, U.S. forces could use piloted aircraft or

drones to fire them, but Arquilla suggested that "special warfare personnel"

could infiltrate enemy defenses and hand-deliver either flavor.

"The question is: Will the general be willing to risk Special Forces?" Arquilla

said. "Because of the close tie between the use of these weapons and the

potential political and social benefits, I think this is a risk well worth


Staff writer Kathy Sawyer contributed to this report.

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