Published February 12, 2003
What Is It?
This type of electromagnetic pulse weapon is a warhead that, when exploded, emits a high-energy pulse that will fuse electrical equipment within range. E-bombs can unleash in a flash as much electrical power - 2 billion watts or more - as the Hoover Dam generates in 24 hours.
The theory behind the E-bomb was proposed in 1925 by physicist Arthur H. Compton to study atoms. His nuclear research led to an unexpected demonstration of the power and spawned a new type of weapon. In 1958, nuclear weapons designers ignited hydrogen bombs high over the Pacific Ocean. The detonations created bursts of gamma rays that, upon striking the oxygen and nitrogen in the atmosphere, released electrons that spread for hundreds of miles. Street lights were blown out in Hawaii and radio navigation was disrupted for 18 hours, as far away as Australia. The United States set out to learn how to "harden" electronics against this electromagnetic pulse (EMP) and develop EMP weapons.
British scientists at Matra Bae Dynamics developed a non-explosive artillery shell serving as an E-bomb in 2000 that could destroy electrical and electronic systems for miles.
How Is it Spread?
An "E-bomb" is delivered by a cruise missile. It can be fired from a long-range 155 mm artillery gun or MLRS rocket launcher, then its outer casing breaks open over the target. The shell or rocket unfolds its radio transmitter aerials, then the transmitter sends a high-powered radio pulse of billions of watts that lasts just a few nanoseconds. It would zap anything electronic on the ground. The high-powered microwaves (HPMs) are not emitted as a single beam but from sidelobes. It's for this reason that E-bombs are dropped mainly by cruise missiles and not manned aircraft, since the microwaves can reflect off the ground and affect pilots.
What Are the Symptoms of Exposure?
The E-bomb mainly affects electronic equipment. It could cripple enemy communication systems and could stop civilian infrastructures such as power plants, manufacturing, hospitals and transportation, from working. It can scramble phones and computers and knock out various facilities, and cause lights to blink out.
Fluorescent lights and television sets will glow eerily bright, even if they're turned off. Electric wires and telephone lines will melt. Portable digital devices such as Palm Pilots and MP3 players will feel warm to the touch, their batteries overloaded. Computers will be toast.
The E-bomb isn't harmful to humans, unless one is set off near a hospital or anyone wearing a pacemaker. Although testing is still ongoing to verify the effects on humans, scientists do know that if someone with any electrical implants were hit with megawatt, high-powered microwaves, the fluid in their body cells would vaporize into steam immediately before they even realized what was happening. If a person was caught in the sidelobe of a beam, or a weak reflection of the main beam off a metal surface, he or she could suffer from burns and permanent brain damage.
How Is It Treated?
If a human was directly hit by microwave beams, he or she would be treated for any burns they may have.
Who Has It?
Although it is still in the experimental phase, the United States may try to use an E-bomb to seize the Iraqi airwaves if a war is launched on that country. The E-bomb will knock out Saddam Hussein's ability to communicate with his military and the Iraq people. The hope is to keep an Iraqi army in place so that it may help keep order in a post-Saddam Iraq.
"[And], although the Pentagon prefers not to use experimental weapons on the battlefield, "the world intervenes from time to time," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said about the E-bomb.
America has remained at the forefront of EMP weapons development. Although much of this work is classified, it's believed that current efforts are based on using high-temperature superconductors to create intense magnetic fields.
In December 2002, various companies were awarded U.S. military contracts to investigate the lethality of HPM devices on target systems and the susceptibility of U.S. systems to HPM threats. They're being tested at the Air Force Research Laboratory at Kirtland Air Force base in New Mexico, as well as at locations in Virginia and California. The work should be completed by February 2005.
What worries terrorism experts is the Flux Compression Generator (FCG). It's a simple weapon, consisting of an explosives-packed tube placed inside a slightly larger copper coil. The instant before the chemical explosive is detonated, the coil is energized by a bank of capacitors, creating a magnetic field. The explosive charge detonates from the rear forward. As the tube flares outward it touches the edge of the coil, thereby creating a moving short circuit. The result is that FCGs will produce a ramping current pulse that makes a lightning bolt seem like a flashbulb.
The Indian military has studied FCG devices because it fears that Pakistan might use E-bombs against the city of Bangalore, a sort of Indian Silicon Valley.