No Explosions, No Noise, No Deadly Calling Card, No Forensic Evidence

New Face of Terrorism:
by Eric Rosenberg

Source: Hearst Newspapers
© 1997

WASHINGTON -- It’s early on a Sunday morning and a minivan prowls the streets of a major U.S. city, perhaps Washington, D.C., or New York. In the back is a tube-like device, about two feet in length, connected to several boxes of electronics. The vehicle drives around its target, a building full of government computer systems. The device fires off electromagnetic pulses aimed at the building. Unlike the Oklahoma City or World Trade Center attacks, there’s no explosion, no noise, no deadly calling card, no forensic evidence. But the damage is nonetheless severe. Electronic brains in computers in the building are burned out or crippled for days. If the attack were to take place in New York, electronic money transactions might be wiped clean; confidence in the U.S. banking system could be undermined.

This hypothetic scenario, described in recent congressional testimony by a retired three-star Army general, makes U.S. planners nervous - because the threat isn’t science fiction. While intrusions by ``hackers’’ - experts who can electronically tap into computers - are a well-known threat to computers, electromagnetic pulse weapons are relatively unknown.

According to published reports, British military officials suspect that these devices, also known as radio frequency or high-powered microwave weapons, already are in the arsenal of the Irish Republican Army. In fact, the British government suspects that radio frequency ``guns’’ may have been fired last year against computers used by the London futures market. In Russia, mobsters ``have successfully used high-energy devices to put alarm systems out of operation,’’ Manuel Wik, a Swedish military scientist, told a computer warfare conference last month. ``One Russian general I know is worried about the increasing number of cases in which terrorists have been using electromagnetic devices,’’ Wik said.

The Swedish banking industry has asked the military to advise banks on how to counter the weapons. Meanwhile, Swedish scientists recently demonstrated a large-scale radio frequency weapon by focusing a beam on a car’s electronics, stopping the vehicle at more than 100 yards. The Pentagon is developing high-powered microwave weapons to disable cruise missiles, aircraft or artillery fire in mid-flight, according to a report by the Defense Research and Engineering office. But it’s not the high-tech systems that concern defense planners as much as it is the low-tech systems, as represented by the van scenario.

``You could take a surplus radar transmitter and concentrate a beam and just sit out on the street corner and blow away virtually any computer facility that had no protection,’’ said John H. Hall, an electromagnetic pulse expert and president of the Fremont, Calif.,-based company Integrated Wave Technologies Inc. ``This stuff has been around for years but nobody has talked about it. And for every amateur saboteur, it’s a new and exciting technology,’’ Hall added.

As the technical know-how proliferates around the world - some Internet sites tell how to build crude variants of the devices - scientists are worried about the consequences. ``Terrorists, by electromagnetic means, could create chaos,’’ said Wik. ``They could direct their weapons against computer centers, upsetting those functions depending on computers. They could direct microwave guns towards traffic on highways and cause malfunctions in cars.’’

There are two basic classes of these weapons. One uses amplifiers and antennas similar to radio transmitters, but they shoot concentrated microwaves. These transmissions destroy electrical components by inducing voltage surges in the target. A less-known class uses explosives wrapped in special antennas to create a much more dense and effective electromagnetic pulse. These devices can be made to fit in the palm of the hand.

The United States is starting to take notice of the potential threat. Rep. Jim Saxton, R-N.J., the chairman of the Joint Economic Committee, which last week held a hearing about electromagnetic pulse technology, called it ``a devastating new weapon ... currently in enhanced development today in Russia.’’ The head of the President’s Commission on Critical Infrastructure Protection, Robert Marsh, said he was not aware that such a weapon had been used against United States facilities but he warned: ``We have to keep our eye on that as a potential weapon for the future.’’

Retired Army Lt. Gen. Robert L. Schweitzer, who was on the Reagan administration National Security Council staff, is calling for greater government attention. He said the government should impose the strictest possible export controls on the technology to prevent proliferation. ``Today, there is a new class of radically new and important radio frequency weapons,’’ Schweitzer warned Saxton’s panel. ``And in this case, the horse is out of the barn. Transfers have occurred and are occurring.’’ Schweitzer is working with the Alexandria, Va.-based defense consulting firm Eagan, McAllister Associates on a study of radio frequency weapons for the Pentagon.

While the devices are worrisome to planners, experts say countermeasures exist, including specialized building construction materials and unique voltage protectors. In addition, fiber optics, which are immune to most pulses, could be used to replace cabling in buildings. Government facilities that rely almost exclusively on computers such as the code-breaking National Security Agency, are believed to have countermeasures in place. But most office buildings do not. ``There could be defenses against this, but today most people are ignoring it,’’ Hall said.

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