TCS Daily

E-Bombs, Pros 'n Cons

By Waldemar Ingdahl - March 25, 2003 12:00 AM

The war in Iraq has begun, and it is certain that the various military forces will use the opportunity to test new weapons on the battlefield. The previous Gulf War saw the first major deployment of "smart" bombs. The war against the Taliban regime was the big breakthrough for unmanned flying drones. It is likely that the new war will see some of the first major uses of electromagnetic pulse (EMP)-weapons, also called "e-bombs", which disable or destroy electronics in the area they target.

The US military (the British army has also been testing some prototypes) developed the e-bomb to avoid what happened in the last Gulf War, when a weapon struck an Iraqi military communications bunker that was also used as a shelter for civilians. The e-bomb, in this instance, could be used to obliterate the electronic installations on the surface, without hurting anybody in the bunker underground.

The international community will certainly carefully observe how e-bombs are deployed in the war against Iraq. Their best use would be against deeply buried and heavily fortified targets and not on vulnerable civilian institutions.

While the e-bomb might represent an advance in terms of military technology and non-lethal warfare, it might also turn out to have an unintended side effect. It could become the weapon of choice of terrorists in the future.

E-bombs do not harm humans directly (except possibly through collateral damages) and the threshold for using them will thus be much lower. If e-bombs were used, the denouncements and cries for retributions on the perpetrators would be far weaker than with the use of conventional bombs. Even the more restrained terrorist groups could be tempted to make use of EMP-weapons, as it appears to be easier to motivate their own members to use supposedly non-lethal means.

Groups such as Al Qaeda, the ecoterrorists and other neo-luddites have never shown any hesitation to use technology to fight the technological society they find so repulsive, and this would target their perceived enemies specifically. Enemies relying on high technology are extremely vulnerable to e-bombs, especially if the weapons are applied to vital nodes of communications, financial centres and other key parts of the infrastructure.

The efficient execution of an Information Warfare (IW) campaign against a modern post-industrial opponent will require the use of specialized tools designed to destroy information systems. High Power Electro-magnetic Pulse generation techniques and High Power Microwave technology have matured to the point where practical electro-magnetic bombs are becoming technically feasible and easier to deploy, with new applications in both strategic and tactical IW.

Targets of the E-bombs include: telecommunication systems, the power grid, finance and banking systems, transportation systems, the media. These weapons are relatively easy to build; they do not require readily identifiable (and thus traceable) chemicals or electronic parts and schematics are even available on the Internet. Granted, it certainly takes quite a lot of skill to build the more efficient ones, but so do other types of bombs, and using even a crude e-bomb in a downtown area can cause massive amounts of damage and havoc. To assemble the e-bombs is thus very cost-efficient for the terrorists, and despite the best security available, even military equipment gets stolen sometimes.

EMP-weapons have several advantages. They can be used in all weather conditions; they have low costs of engagement; they can engage multiple targets; they are non-lethal to humans; they are difficult to detect.

As we can see, these advantages will have a much higher potential impact on technologically advanced societies, as electronics are embedded in almost every modern activity. Our western societies are extremely vulnerable to electronic disruptions. In fact, the dangers of EMP were one of the key arguments for banning atmospheric nuclear tests.

Just how effective e-bombs would be against modern military forces remains uncertain, however. British, American and other NATO-issue military equipment is far more protected than off-the-shelf commercial electronics. Even though critical civilian systems might be shielded and protected as well, the cost to replace computers, telephones, inkjet cartridges and hospital equipment, for example, would be significant.

The introduction and use of e-weapons might lead to a heavier emphasis on distributed and shielded systems. Centralized systems are too vulnerable for e-weapons. Even if the central system escapes significant damage in an attack, the systems that are connected to it might still get damaged and bring down the whole system. At present, the costs connected to the level of redundancy required to avoid these dangers is often judged as economically unfeasible. This judgment will certainly change if e-weapons are deployed.

For our free markets and free societies to function everyday, we need a great deal of trust in security. With e-bombs it will be difficult to guarantee the same level of security without very harsh measures. But these measures will threaten the very nature of our open society.

The attack of 9/11 opened the window for a new type of conflict; nations vs. networks, and e-bombs are just one of the heralds of this new type of conflict (where the networks gain the most from the new e-weapons): the conflict of asymmetric warfare.

The present war with Iraq might well be, in some important respects, the last old- fashioned war. How are conflicts with distributed, flexible, and unconventional networks going to be handled by the more rigid and centralized institutions of nations? A meaningful change of military and security doctrines is most probably at hand.

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