| [LA Times]
'Sci-Fi' Weapons Going to War
By William M. Arkin
William M. Arkin is a military affairs analyst who writes regularly for
Opinion. E-mail: email@example.com.
December 8 2002
SOUTH POMFRET, Vt. -- On April 30, 2001, more than 30 square miles of
the rolling Maryland countryside that make up the Aberdeen Proving
Grounds were cleared of all nonessential personnel for the first
full-scale test of a new weapon. Planners also took care to remove all
unnecessary electronic equipment, because electronic equipment was
exactly what the new weapon was designed to destroy.
At 6:13 p.m., the antenna on the exotic new device was switched on and a
high-powered beam of microwaves was fired at a nearby truck -- the first
field deployment of a "directed energy" weapon. It fried the truck's
ignition and air-fuel mixing system, bringing the hapless vehicle to a
About the same time, at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico, field
demonstrations were being wrapped up on another microwave weapon, this
one mounted on a truck and designed to inflict intense pain on human
skin. The weapon sprang from a program devoted to what military
researchers call "active-denial technology."
Now, a year and a half later, an enormous effort is underway to move
these speed-of-light weapons from the realm of research to combat
readiness. The same is true for an array of exotic new weapons,
including new generations of so-called "agent defeat" bombs. Among the
latter is a guided cluster bomb that scatters 4,000 titanium rods
capable of penetrating chemical and biological bunkers and storage tanks
with lethal effect. Most promising is a new incendiary device that
generates a firestorm so intense it cannot be quenched with water.
What lies behind this rush to bring these exotic new weapons into the
American arsenal is the Bush administration's almost obsessive
determination to eradicate nuclear, chemical and biological weapons in
Iraq -- and potentially in other rogue states -- as part of its war on
The new devices, along with the development of highly secret special
operations units and new tactics, are intended to help the armed forces
seize or neutralize the so-called weapons of mass destruction (WMD) with
greater speed and security -- as well as with less damage to surrounding
areas or people, and less danger of inadvertently spreading toxic
There are risks, however, because some of these new weapons could
arguably be construed as violating established codes of wartime conduct.
And the risks of a backlash, whether at home or abroad, are magnified by
the administration's almost total refusal to talk about what it is doing
and thereby build public understanding and support.
Unfortunately, one side effect of framing the war on terrorism in terms
of weapons of mass destruction is that it instills in government
officials a sense of moral certainty so great that they feel no need to
explain or justify themselves.
And, for all the talk of withering airstrikes on thousands of Iraqi
targets and of armored divisions racing toward Baghdad, what really
distinguishes Washington's preparation for war with Iraq is its focus on
finding and destroying Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction.
Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul D. Wolfowitz made this crystal clear
last week when he said, "Our goal is to achieve the disarmament of Iraqi
weapons of mass destruction, peacefully if possible, voluntarily if
possible, by force if necessary."
And the administration clearly sees high-powered microwave, or HPM,
weapons and other such devices as potentially useful in achieving that
goal. When Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld was asked at an
August press briefing how promising he considered HPM technology, he
replied in his characteristically elliptical way by recalling the
unexpected emergence of unmanned aerial drones in the Afghanistan war.
"You never know," he said. Drones "that were used in Afghanistan had not
reached their full development. In the normal order of things, when you
invest in research and development, you don't have any intention or
expectations that one would use it. On the other hand, the real world
intervenes from time to time."
The real world that drives current war planning is the absolute
imperative of thwarting Iraqi use of chemical or biological weapons.
For many years, the military and the defense industry have dreamed of
directed-energy weapons -- lasers, microwaves and electromagnetic pulses
that would operate in milliseconds and leapfrog over the current
generations of conventional and nuclear weapons.
Microwave weapons work by producing an intense surge of energy, like a
lightning bolt, that short-circuits electrical connections, interferes
with computer motherboards, destroys memory chips and damages other
electronic components. As antipersonnel weapons, active-denial HPMs send
a narrow beam of energy that penetrates about 1/64th of an inch into the
skin, where nerves that cause pain are located. By instantaneously
heating the skin to above 50 degrees Centigrade (122 degrees
Fahrenheit), the microwaves inflict intense pain; often, the reaction
they produce is panic. "All the glossy slide presentations in the world
cannot prepare you for what to expect when you step in the beam," a
high-ranking officer commented last year after experiencing it. His
account was contained in military documents.
As a result of the attacks of Sept. 11, these and other highly
classified HPM prototypes are being evaluated for use against facilities
involving weapons of mass destruction. "We are looking for a boutique of
capabilities," Sue Payton, deputy undersecretary of Defense for advanced
systems and concepts, told the Pentagon press corps in March, describing
the agent-defeat mission. HPMs are being tested against mock targets
with the hope of being able to disable them with a minimum of blast
effects, civilian death or external physical damage, military sources
In fact, HPM weapons technology has now returned to its nuclear roots.
In the mid-1980s, the Air Force's Strategic Air Command called for a new
weapon able to protect storage bunkers from mobs of anti-nuclear
protesters. A "repel demonstrator" device using high-powered microwaves
was built and tested in 1996. The focus of the program shifted to crowd
control missions for places such as Somalia and Bosnia; two
vehicle-mounted prototypes were tested in New Mexico and built before
While these devices can perform at close quarters, developers of
long-range HPM weapons still have had to overcome huge problems in
making them combat-ready. They require large power sources. They are
small and lack ruggedness. And they have a tendency to inadvertently
harm friendly forces.
In April 1999, the Joint Command and Control Warfare Center oversaw the
first military HPM weapon successfully demonstrated against electronics
on a small scale. The prototype was described at the time as "elegant,
safe, well built, and user friendly." Last October, a Defense Department
briefing extolled its ability to stop vehicles at hundreds of meters,
and military sources hint that at least three different prototypes are
available for what might be one-time use in Iraq.
Meantime, the Pentagon has not put all its eggs in the technology
basket. It is training special combat units too.
Since Sept. 11, the mission of the U.S. Special Operations Command has
focused on combating terrorism and countering weapons as dual
priorities. The command's mission, according to Defense Department
documents, is to "prevent/limit/minimize the development, possession and
employment of weapons of mass destruction [and] to seize, destroy,
render safe, capture or recover WMD [weapons of mass destruction]."
The use of Special Forces in this role actually has its roots in the
Cold War, when the still-top-secret Delta Force was created. In fact,
its first "certifying" exercise, code-named Joshua Junction, took place
at a mock nuclear weapons facility on Jackass Flats at the Nevada Test
Site. In that exercise, Delta Force teams were to recover a stolen U.S.
nuclear weapon from a Middle East terrorist group. Over more than 20
years, what is now called the Joint Special Operations Command has honed
its ability to conduct surgical missions against WMD production, storage
and other facilities, using techniques and weapons designed to minimize
environmental damage and the danger of dispersal.
Putting new weapons together with these highly trained teams of special
operators, Pentagon planners have developed detailed scenarios for
dealing with any WMD facilities encountered in Iraq.
Unmanned vehicles with special sensors keyed to detect radioactive or
chemical emissions would scout the site. HPMs would then be employed.
Spreading soundlessly along water pipes, air vents and antennas, they
would attack electronic equipment, causing the facility to freeze up.
HPMs might also be used to drive the enemy out of bunkers and other
secure sites without the destruction and possible collateral damage that
come with high explosives.
Cluster and smart bombs could also bring about pinpoint destruction of
above-ground facilities. New incendiaries, combined with penetrating
munitions and chemicals, could burn up chemical or biological agents.
Under a program originally dubbed Vulcan Fire, the Navy and Lockheed
Martin are furiously working to field 20 inter-metallic incendiaries.
Called HTI-J-1000, these penetrator weapons combine high-temperature
explosives to ignite and burn chemical agents, with disinfectant
chlorine and acids to neutralize biological agents.
Many of the boutique weapons and special operations remain highly
classified not only to preserve the element of surprise, but also
because -- politically -- they are highly controversial.
This year's classified Nuclear Posture Review talked of a classified
weapon under development that uses "radiological neutralization" of
chemical/biological materials in production or storage facilities.
"Radiological neutralization" suggests something awfully close to a
nuclear weapon. And HPMs intended to destroy military electronics and
disrupt civilian electrical power systems might also knock out
electrical service to hospitals, for instance, and attack backup
generators. Even people with pacemakers might be affected.
Similarly, high-tech antipersonnel devices must inflict pain while
avoiding burning, eye damage or other prolonged effects that could be
considered "unnecessary suffering," which is banned under existing
treaties and international law.
The Bush administration justifies use of the new weapons on grounds that
hitting WMD sites with conventional weapons might create large-scale
disasters, because hazardous chemicals, toxins and biological agents
could be dispersed over a wide area.
This line of thinking may stem in part from the fact that, during the
1991 Gulf War, when Hussein had an enormous chemical and biological
arsenal, the United States took huge risks in attacking WMD sites.
American intelligence had no idea which targets actually contained
chemical and biological agents; only after the war did we discover how
little correlation there'd been between actual and suspected WMD sites.
Today, U.S. intelligence about the location of Hussein's illicit
materials is no better. The hope is that Iraq will do something to
"expose" its weapons, providing the opportunity for a clear American
shot. The goal -- reducing the risk of nuclear, chemical or biological
disaster -- is important.
But good intentions may not be a good enough answer if units such as
Delta Force are sent into action with weapons and tactics that appear to
cross the threshold of what is considered lawful and acceptable.
Especially if the U.S. government does not begin to make its case to the
American public and the rest of the world until after the fact.
Secrecy seems to be the Bush administration's favorite operating style.
In the end, however, events may prove that its momentary convenience
comes at a heavy price.