E-Bomb: Ultimate Military (and Terrorist) Weapon
In the distance a sharp crack splits the evening asunder. You glance at your watch: 7:12 p.m. The antique grandfather clock behind you reads 7:17 p.m. You look up at the wall clock: 7:12.
The TV in the corner glows with a greenish phosphorescence. You click the remote – nothing happens. The air is close and clammy, as if the air conditioning were not running. It smells like a mixture of rainstorm and melted plastic. You feel a warmth against your chest, and realize your PDA is quite hot. As you pull it out, you burn your fingers and drop it to the floor.
The tick-tock from the grandfather clock seems louder. A click, and the Westminster chimes play two cycles – 7:30. You glance at your watch: still 7:12.
The light switch – but the lights stay dark, except your fluorescent desk lamp, which glows dully. You pick up the phone. It’s hot to the touch, no dial tone. You reach for your cell phone, but it doesn’t work either, and it’s almost too hot to hold.
Your computer is smoked. Your magnetically stored data is history. Your magnetic backups – the whole kit and caboodle – are gone.
Obviously, something is terribly wrong.
You run outside into the growing darkness – none of the street lights are working – and point your control pad at your Lexus. Nothing happens. So you unlock the door with the key and then you attempt to start the ignition. Nothing. Not even a click. And your headlights don’t work either.
You open the car door, and that’s when you notice it: An eerie quiet has settled over the city. Except for the barking of a few dogs and the shouts of several children, there is no sound at all. No cars, no busses, no planes, no music – nothing but silence, and the smell of ozone and burnt insulation.
You suddenly realize that the entire background music of civilization is missing. It is as if you had gone back 200 years into the past.
What happened? What could have caused such a scene? How could something like this happen in the modern world?
In a word: E-bomb.
Somewhere within a several-mile radius, a terrorist cell set off a $400 flux compression generator (FCG) – engineer-speak for an E-bomb.
A typical FCG consists of an explosives-packed tube about 12 inches in diameter, loosely wrapped with a copper coil that is connected to a capacitor bank. The firing sequence dumps the capacitor bank into the coil, creating a magnetic field, and immediately thereafter sets off the explosive charge, which is packed to detonate sequentially through the tube. The exploding tube flares outward shorting the coil, creating a moving short circuit. The propagating short compresses the magnetic field while reducing the coil’s inductance.
This produces a ramping current pulse, which breaks before the device disintegrates. Typical ramp times are several milliseconds with peak currents of tens of millions of amps. The emerging electromagnetic pulse is several orders of magnitude stronger than a typical lightning bolt.
A properly constructed E-bomb can effectively “fry” everything electric and electronic within several miles of the point of detonation. And the pulse is not the end. During the next fifteen minutes or so, collapsing electrical systems and communications grids will distribute the pulse, and create their own smaller pulses, analogous to an earthquake aftershock. The entire affected electrical and communications system will tear itself apart – self destruct.
Put it in a small plane, and you can stop a city. Put it in a high-flying passenger jet, and you can stop several states, or even a country.
That’s a lot of “bang” for $400 worth of materials.
This is not science fiction. Several labs have already run full-scale tests of these devices. Even now, the U.S. Navy is preparing to install them in cruise missiles (in fact, may already have done so), and to install them shipboard to disable incoming missiles. The Air Force is readying several of its unmanned planes to carry sophisticated versions of the E-bomb. And both the Navy and Air Force are investigating how best to install the devices in manned aircraft. The Army is investigating how to explode artillery shells in mid-flight.
Will these weapons be used in the forthcoming conflict with Iraq? Almost certainly. They are most effective when deployed against a high-tech opponent, but Iraq is still a modern nation in the sense that it depends upon electricity and electronics in a significant way. Expect to see, therefore, High Power Microwave (HPM) devices directed against Iraq’s industrial centers in the first few days of the war.
HPMs are more directed and controllable than generalized E-bombs, and can be used to take out specific targets with very little “collateral” damage. Iraq will present the United States with the first real opportunity to see how these weapons work under actual combat conditions.
These devices have been in development since the late 1950s, but only in the last few years have we made the necessary advances to call them weapons. Until two years ago, the Russians led the world in E-bomb development. Their devices have been purchased by several European nations – that we know of. Australia has an ongoing program, as do China, Israel and South Africa…
What we don’t know is what level of E-bomb weaponry has fallen into al Qaeda’s hands. Exact instructions for constructing one of the $400 devices are not readily available, but it won’t take long for al Qaeda’s American university-trained engineers to find the right combination.
A tip for U.S. intelligence agencies: Look for unexplained power outages in remote locations during the next several months, as al Qaeda operatives work the bugs out of their home-made E-bombs.
And then, stand by ….
Robert G. Williscroft is DefenseWatch Navy Editor