The Newest WMD

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E-Bombing Civilization

by Daniel McCarthy

There’s a new weapon of mass destruction, one designed to destroy critical electronic infrastructure. It shorts out everything from office computers to traffic lights to pacemakers, crippling the machines that run a modern economy — not to mention those that run a modern hospital. Although not intended as an anti-personnel device, the side-effects that this weapon has upon human beings caught within its blast radius are devastating: those lucky enough to suffer a direct hit are more or less instantly vaporized. The less fortunate on the periphery of the blast, or those caught by a ricochet, suffer severe burns and damage to the internal organs, including the brain.

The weapon is the "e-bomb," or microwave bomb, and as you may have guessed, this new marvel of terror is brought to us by the same folks who gave the world the atomic bomb and weaponized anthrax. Yes, it’s a creation of the United States federal government and its "defense" contractors. Victorino Matus writes about the e-bomb on the Weekly Standard’s website; Matus cannot quite conceal his enthusiasm, but he does at least mention the humanitarian concerns about the device. Of course, he concludes by reiterating that the purpose of the bomb is actually to spare lives: to destroy electronics without also killing people. This is a humanitarian weapon.

Something here doesn’t add up. Several news sources have reported that the e-bomb may see its first use in the attack on Iraq.That’s understandable as far as it goes; Iraq is not really a stone age country, despite years of sanctions. It may still have enough electronics to make the bomb an effective weapon in the U.S. arsenal (although then again, it may not). But think about this in the long term. The real danger to the United States at present comes from terrorist organizations, not from "rogue states," which are only significant to the extent that they harbor and support terrorists. How do you use an "e-bomb" against al Qaeda? It’s not a weapon of much use against people hiding in caves. Nor is it of any use in stopping a hijacked airplane — it could bring down an aircraft, of course, but so could a conventional missile, and the e-bomb would run the additional risk of shorting out any other electronics nearby, including other planes and systems on the ground. Even its usefulness against Iraq will be very limited. To put it bluntly, an anti-technology weapon is most useful against a target dependent on high technology. That doesn’t mean Iraq, and it certainly doesn’t mean Afghanistan or al Qaeda. It means countries like the United States.

By its very nature, the e-bomb poses more of a danger to the United States and other first world countries than it does to terrorists or rogue states. So why is the US developing this weapon? One explanation would be that the military-industrial bureaucracy is still fighting the last war. The e-bomb might work fine against the aircraft and mechanized infantry divisions of a large nation state such as the Soviet Union. It would be a useful weapon to deploy against cities as well, to scramble communications and handicap the economy. But this kind nation-to-nation warfare is not what America or the world currently faces. Even apart from al Qaeda, most of the fighting in the world today is within, not between, states. Outside of Africa, what warfare there still is between states typically now takes the form of the United States and its allies fighting a single, smaller foe of extremely limited conventional forces (Serbia, Iraq, etc.). In such engagements the e-bomb has limited practical value. It’s a bunker-buster, and one of a highly specialized sort, in an age characterized by fewer and fewer bunkers. It might have applications in Iraq, but it would have had few indeed in Serbia — except, again, as a weapon for use against cities.

On the other hand, the e-bomb would be a very convenient weapon for anyone who wanted to attack America. There are ways to shield, or "harden," electronics against electromagnetic pulses, but microwaves are the most difficult radiation to harden against. No doubt some of the most highly sensitive military technology might be proofed against an e-bomb, but civilians would have little protection. In addition to hospitals and traffic lights, power grids, air traffic control systems, and telecommunications could all be crippled or destroyed. The loss of life and economic damage would be bad enough in Belgrade or Baghdad; in an American city it would be far worse. The microwave bomb really is a weapon of mass destruction, one particularly tuned to the weaknesses of a modern, computer-reliant city.

Will the government’s development of this weapon come back to haunt us? In twenty years’ time we may have President George P. Bush threatening war with Bhutan unless the Bhutanis can prove that they haven’t been developing an e-bomb. Meanwhile our own military-industrial complex will be busily at work creating yet another weapon of mass destruction. It’s happened before and now it’s happening again.

Daniel McCarthy [send him mail] is a graduate student in classics at Washington University in St. Louis.

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