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Pentagon in $75m electropulse blast-ray programme

Terawatt RF zap weapons sought

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Despite decades of disappointment, plucky Pentagon boffinry chiefs continue to seek a working electromagnetic pulse weapon - the dreaded, circuitry-frying "e-bomb".

The US Air Force Research Laboratory is now initiating a five-year, $75m programme intended to finally get the field of electropulse combat kickstarted.

Wired magazine reported yesterday on the upcoming High Energy Research and Applications (HERA*) programme, advertised by the airforce war boffins here.

The preferred airforce term for the desired kit is High Power Microwave (HPM). The HERA programme is supposed to "deliver aerial and ground based HPM weapon systems... close to an end product" by 2012. This dovetails nicely with hints given in a presentation by a Pentagon research chief some months ago.

The HERA notice says the Air Force would like zappers delivering peak power in the multi-gigawatt range, or even more.

"Research and experiments will be conducted with the goal of... increasing power (trillion watt range)... mating advanced weapons concept devices to HPM generators..."

Millimetre-wave pulses in the lotsa-gigawatt intensity range - let alone terawatt - can run up against "air breakdown limits" where the very air itself starts to glow with the energy being beamed through it. While no doubt very cool in appearance, from the war boffins' point of view this is a problem as they want the power to get into the enemy's circuitry rather than waste itself in flashy pyrotechnics. They'd like candidates for the $75m to have "innovative methods to overcome air breakdown limits" up their sleeve.

Among other things, the lucky organisation will also need plenty of staff suitable for a "CRITICAL NUCLEAR WEAPON DESIGN INFORMATION" security clearance. This is probably to do with the fact that most of the decent HPM pulses produced so far have been side effects of atomic bomb explosions.

All this is pretty tasty stuff: but it isn't a death ray, or anyway isn't meant to be. The idea is to mount strikes against "targets set such as... facilities with electronic systems" or "centers of gravity". The electropulse blast would knock out communications, data, and/or power grid networks, by overloading their circuits with fatal RF-induced spikes.

(This was what evil Sean Bean planned to do to London in the Bond caper Goldeneye, using a space-based nuclear HPM gizmo built by the Russians and controlled from a thinly-disguised shopping centre.)

That's not to say that microwaves at this sort of power couldn't hurt or kill people, but if that's what you want to do there are easier and cheaper ways. This probably is what the Pentagon says, an attempt to kill electronics rather than humans.

Even so, nobody needs to start wrapping all their gear in Faraday cages just yet. People have been foretelling the HPM e-bomb forever, and many disappointments have been suffered. This is likely to be just another long shot on the part of the US air force, who'd very much like to have some more options in between dropping leaflets and blowing everything up.

So leave that tinfoil on the shelf for now. ®

Bootnote

*Another poor acronym, Hera being an unsuitable goddess for a programme like this. We'd have gone with lightning gods: ZEUS (Zapper Effects for Unlikely Scenarios), or THOR (Terawatt Hardkill Option Research).

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