Pentagon seeks electropulse blast-ray weapon

Published 24 January 2008

The U.S. Air Force is seeking electromagnetic pulse weapon for the purpose of targeting an enemy communications, data, or power grid networks and overloading their circuits with disruptive RF-induced spikes; earlier efforts to develop such a weapon have failed, but the Pentagon believes a terawatt RF zap weapon is feasible

Talk about persistence: Despite decades of disappointment, undaunted Pentagon researchers continue to seek a working electromagnetic pulse weapon, otherwise known as circuitry-frying “e-bomb.” The U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory has launched a five-year, $75 million program intended to get the field of electropulse combat going again. Wired magazine reported a few weeks ago on the High Energy Research and Applications (HERA) program, which was energetically adertised by the Air Force .

The Register’s Lewis Page reports that the preferred Air Force term for the desired kit is High Power Microwave (HPM). The HERA program is supposed to “deliver aerial and ground based HPM weapon systems… close to an end product” by 2012. This dovetails nicely with hints given in a presentation by a Pentagon research chief some months ago. The HERA notice says the Air Force would like zappers delivering peak power in the multi-gigawatt range, or even more. “Research and experiments will be conducted with the goal of… increasing power (trillion watt range)… mating advanced weapons concept devices to HPM generators…” Millimetre-wave pulses in the mega-gigawatt intensity range — let alone terawatt — can run up against what phsycists call “air breakdown limits,” that is, the point at which the very air itself starts to glow with the energy being beamed through it. This limit poses a problem for weapon designer as they want the power to get into the enemy’s circuitry rather than waste itself in flashy pyrotechnics. The RFP emphasizes, therefore, that candidates for the $75 million grant should offer “innovative methods to overcome air breakdown limits.”

The Air Force also says that the organization receiving the grant should have staff suitable for a “critical nuclear weapon design information” security clearance. This probably has to do with the fact that most of the decent HPM pulses produced so far have been side effects of atomic bomb explosions. The purpose of the envisioned weapon system is to mount strikes against “targets set such as… facilities with electronic systems” or “centers of gravity.” The electropulse blast would knock out communications, data, or power grid networks by overloading their circuits with fatal RF-induced spikes.

As we said at the beginning, military researchers have been toying with the HPM e-bomb for decades, suffering many disappointments. It remains to be seen whether this time around the results will be different.