Feeds

DARPA develops zap-bomb electropulse countermeasures

First, get pulse bombs to work

Secure remote control for conventional and virtual desktops

US military boffins are preparing highly sophisticated technical defences against the dreaded electromagnetic pulse bomb, a weapon which has long been anticipated but never successfully built.

We know about the counter-electropulse defence technology because the company which will develop it - HRL Labs of Malibu, California - announced their contract win yesterday. The programme is referred to by the Pentagon as Electromagnetic Pulse-tolerant Microwave Receiver Front-end, or EMPiRe*.

The idea of the attacking e-weapon is that it would release a hugely powerful radio-frequency or microwave pulse. In the same way that a normal, very weak emission is picked up by a radio or radar antenna to produce a measurable current, the weapons-grade pulse would induce a vicious surge in exposed electronic equipment - potentially frying it for good, or at least shutting it down for a bit.

Such weapons, it's often thought, might be driven by explosions or other rapid processes rather than normal batteries or generators, because of the need to release large amounts of power very fast: hence pulse bomb rather than pulse raygun etc.

Normally, the defence against this sort of thing is simple. You merely enclose your electronics in a conductive metallic Faraday cage, perhaps fashioned of trusty tinfoil if nothing better comes to hand. The problems of generating and focusing powerful electropulses are already enormous - so enormous, in fact, that decades of secretive US effort have failed to produce any working EMP weapons**. Producing an EMP which has range, focus and power sufficient to sizzle its way through a decent Faraday cage is just not on.

But there are problems here. Some kinds of electronics are no use if you wrap them up in a radio-proof box. In particular, a microwave receiver in a communications or radar set needs to pick up RF radiation - but if you let it, an EMP bomb or whatever might fry the electronics of the connected system.

HRL's proposed solution is to isolate the "front end" of the receiver, which will "sense incoming electrical fields through a high-performance microwave photonic link". The new HRL front end will pass information to the signal processors optically, meaning that no electric surge through into the protected back end is possible.

"The thermal effects of a high-energy attack will be insignificant because our sensor head absorbs negligible radio-frequency power," says HRL Senior Scientist Dr James Schaffner.

HRL's research is funded by DARPA, the Pentagon's elite group of paradigm-punishing, technonoclastic nerd-wranglers. DARPA's goal often appears to the outsider to be that of rendering America's latest military tech obsolete well before it actually comes into service. In this case the Pentagon brainboxes may well excel themselves, as even the more ambitious ongoing US pulse-bomb efforts only see themselves starting a useful weapons programme from 2012. (To be fair, DARPA might be more worried about EMPs from nukes.)

Needless to say, some who already prefer to be on the safe side regarding Faraday Cage protective headgear will see this instead as solid evidence that the dreaded, functional pulse bomb - or even EMP ray-cannon - is already out there. ®

Bootnotes

*This breaks every rule of Acronym Club. We suggest Barrier Interposed Terawatt Countermeasures against High-powered Specialist Lightning Attack Pulses.

**Other than nuclear bombs, which produce a substantial EMP as a side effect when they go off. It has been suggested that if you wanted to EMP an enemy city - so knocking out all its comms and electronics, as opposed to leaving it a glowing glassy crater - you might touch off a suitable nuke above it in the extreme upper reaches of the atmosphere. Evil Sean Bean was fixing to do this to London in the Bond flick Goldeneye, using an eponymous Russkie space nuke pulse device hacked by Bean's henchmen from their thinly-disguised shopping centre base, apparently situated beneath the Arecibo radar telescope.

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

More from The Register

next story
Phones 4u slips into administration after EE cuts ties with Brit mobe retailer
More than 5,500 jobs could be axed if rescue mission fails
Driving with an Apple Watch could land you with a £100 FINE
Bad news for tech-addicted fanbois behind the wheel
Phones 4u website DIES as wounded mobe retailer struggles to stay above water
Founder blames 'ruthless network partners' for implosion
Radio hams can encrypt, in emergencies, says Ofcom
Consultation promises new spectrum and hints at relaxed licence conditions
Special pleading against mass surveillance won't help anyone
Protecting journalists alone won't protect their sources
Big Content Australia just blew a big hole in its credibility
AHEDA's research on average content prices did not expose methodology, so appears less than rigourous
Vodafone to buy 140 Phones 4u stores from stricken retailer
887 jobs 'preserved' in the process, says administrator PwC
prev story

Whitepapers

Secure remote control for conventional and virtual desktops
Balancing user privacy and privileged access, in accordance with compliance frameworks and legislation. Evaluating any potential remote control choice.
Intelligent flash storage arrays
Tegile Intelligent Storage Arrays with IntelliFlash helps IT boost storage utilization and effciency while delivering unmatched storage savings and performance.
WIN a very cool portable ZX Spectrum
Win a one-off portable Spectrum built by legendary hardware hacker Ben Heck
High Performance for All
While HPC is not new, it has traditionally been seen as a specialist area – is it now geared up to meet more mainstream requirements?
Beginner's guide to SSL certificates
De-mystify the technology involved and give you the information you need to make the best decision when considering your online security options.