Pentagon: Electromagnetic pulse bombs from 2012
Elusive, movie style tech-Yeti finally spotted
A presentation given by a US Air Force official may have - temporarily, at least - laid to rest one of the wilder and wackier secret superweapon conspiracy theories of recent times.
The superweapon in question is the dreaded "E-bomb", aka "Electromagnetic pulse weapon (EMP)" "High Power Microwave (HPM)" and so on, depending on the exact details.
Most people are familiar with the fact that a nuclear weapon gives off a powerful electromagnetic pulse when detonated. Just as an ordinary-strength RF transmission induces tiny electrical flows in receiving antennae, a nuclear bomb's much more intense EMP can cause damaging spikes in exposed electronic circuitry, potentially knackering it.
Ever since the effect was noted, various people have speculated that it would be interesting to use a suitable nuke, not to leave one's enemy atomised and/or glowing in the dark, but rather to fry all his electronics.
One way of doing so might be to let off the nuke just outside the atmosphere above the location to be EMPed. The eponymous Russkie space zappers in the Bond flick Goldeneye were supposed to be some kind of E-bomb, for instance.
Not many people have nukes at all, though. Even fewer have so many of these expensive things that they would expend them handing out a relatively mild electronic love-tap as opposed to actually killing and destroying their enemies.
However, a lot of people think you could generate usefully-powerful electro-zap effects using means short of nukes. Aviation Week reporter David Fulghum, a veteran electronic-warfare analyst, has long prophesied the advent of the microwave weapon. Just last January, he wrote  that: "High-power microwave weapons may be on the verge of a high-speed turn toward the practical."
The relative simplicity of the [e-bomb bits] suggests that any nation with even a 1940s technology base, once in possession of engineering drawings and specifications for such weapons, could manufacture them.
As an example, the fabrication of an effective [explosives-driven flux generator] can be accomplished with basic electrical materials, common plastic explosives such as C-4 or Semtex, and readily available machine tools... communications infrastructure in the West will remain a 'soft' electromagnetic target in the forseeable future... With the former CIS suffering significant economic difficulties, the possibility of CIS designed microwave and pulse power technology leaking out to Third World nations or terrorist organisations should not be discounted. The threat of electromagnetic bomb proliferation is very real.
Holy crap - the goddamn terrorists can slap one of these together, and knock out all of western civilisation Die Hard 4 stylee.
And of course it's taken as a given that the US black-projects empire has a stash of fearful e-bombs and missiles. These rumours came to a head during the run-up to the Iraq invasion of 2003. Even the mainstream news services got in on the act , leading normally respectable news outfits to indulge in out-and-out tinfoil hat hysteria.
Guardian scribe and English Lit prof John Sutherland , drawing on the extensive weapons-tech expertise he had developed during many years as, erm, a literary reviewer and authority on Victorian fiction, handled the HPM story particularly entertainingly .
Samurai knights, one is told, were permitted to try the cutting edge of their sword on the neck of any luckless (and soon headless) passing peasant... The battlefield will be the testing ground for the US samurai. No more rhesus monkeys or pigs but real, live Iraqis...
The newer, smarter weapon to be battlefield-tested in Gulf War Two will be that fantasy of every sci-fi writer, a death-ray. The HPM (high-power microwave) bomb... 100 lightning bolts, focused into a single pulse of radiation ... The bomb is... ready to lock and load... it can penetrate underground... cunning radiation will eel its way through ventilation shafts... you can't hide.
Sutherland gave short shrift to the notion of HPM being basically non-lethal to humans.
Those who have been exposed to HPM report that its effect is agonising. The radiation penetrates below the skin, boiling nerve cells. It can blind. It induces uncontrollable panic... Will Iraqi civilians serve as guinea pigs? No one knows what the long-term effect of microwave exposure is... Peasant, bare your neck!
Lawks. Those sinister American military people, with their flimsy lies about attacking enemy electronics rather than people. The Reg coverage  was a bit more sceptical, noting that Faraday cages aren't hard to construct.
Meanwhile, inspired no doubt by Dr Kopp, various people in the US  were running around tearing their hair at the notion of devastating al Qaeda pulse strikes that would knock America back to the stone age, or at least the 19th century.
In the end, the expected American e-bomb barrage in Iraq didn't happen, though a lot of Iraqis did get killed and wounded by boring old regular bombs. Prof Sutherland's "death ray" did eventually turn up, sort of, in the form of the rather non-deadly crowd-griddling microwave gun .
The Active Denial System has not yet been to Iraq, despite requests from commanders there who think it might allow them to shoot or bomb fewer people. This is partly because its cooling system isn't capable of dealing with Iraqi temperatures, but the thing's negative image is no doubt something of a factor.
Judging by reports this week, it might also be that the microwave gun just doesn't work very well, especially in the rain . (Angry Iraqi mobs may wish to douse their clothing and/or lay in a stock of water balloons. The tinfoil favoured by other opponents of the US military-industrial complex might also be quite effective.)
In the end, it's always going to be quite difficult to permanently knock out or fry electronics - especially hardened military electronics - by shining radio waves at them. That old nemesis of the death ray, the inverse-square law, is particularly unfriendly to wide-beam weapons like Kopp's HPM pulse bombs. Getting an e-warhead to a stage where it would have more effect on enemy electronics than an ordinary bomb would be very hard, and it doesn't seem to have happened.
Even David Fulghum admits as much:
The development of HPM weapons has been hobbled for the last 30 years by seemingly intractable cost, size, beam-control and power-generation requirements. Tests of modified air-launched cruise missiles carrying devices to produce explosively generated spikes of energy were considered big disappointments in the early 1990s... [new-generation kit] can jam emitters or possibly cause damage to electronic components with focused beams. But power levels and ranges are limited...
It seems that the American electronic-warfare (EW) researchers these days are focusing more on fooling or spoofing enemy systems by introducing false signals into their kit from the air, using real-world emitters too weak to be considered proper EMP/HPM weapons but still very powerful. This kind of trickery can be of use even against insurgents, as when fiddling with cell or satellite phones. There are also strong rumours suggesting that even quite basic roadside bombs and the like can often be triggered prematurely by American EW planes - not every insurgent remembers to use twisted-pair firing wire, it would seem.
But those who like their proper, exploding movie-plot kit shouldn't depair. There's hope for a no-shit, bomb format pulse weapon yet. Flicking through the presentations  (pdf, page 16) at the 2007 Air Armament Symposium in the States, Flight International reporter Stephen Trimble noted  this week that Dr John Corley of the US airforce Capabilities Integration directorate expects an HPM bomb programme to kick off from 2012.
Of course, the more tinfoil-wardrobed Pentagon watchers will recognise a cunning disinformation ploy when they see one. ®
*Dr Carlo Kopp's qualifications are beyond cavil. His belief that what Australia really needs right now is a much bigger airforce equipped with the latest, fearsomely expensive American F-22 Raptor stealth superfighter... that, you could argue with.