Directed-Energy Weapons

By David Ruppe, Global Security Newswire, Friday 16 August 2002

Possible U.S. Use Against Iraq Could Threaten International Regimes

WASHINGTON—The U.S. Defense Department might use high-power microwave (HPM) technology, now under development, in an attack on Iraq, bypassing the traditional Pentagon approval process for using new technologies, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said earlier this month.

“You never know,” he said at a press briefing Aug. 9, adding that there is already precedent for deploying weapons still under development.

Some human rights and international legal experts have expressed concern that the weapons might cause unnecessary human suffering or destroy civilian infrastructure, which is prohibited by an international arms control agreement. The United States has faced international criticism in recent months for what some critics perceive as a U.S. pullback from multilateral arms control agreements.

A 1977 protocol to the Geneva Conventions on the laws of war prohibits weapons that cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering and that are indiscriminate in their effects. It requires countries to assess the legality of a new weapon in light of the protocol and other international conventions. While the United States has not signed the protocol, it has indicated that it recognizes those principles as customary law and legally binding.

Safety Concerns

High-power microwave systems are designed to produce high-density bursts of energy capable of damaging or destroying nearby electronics, including those in vehicles, weapons and air defense and communications systems. HPM weapons could provide U.S. forces with a unique advantage, enabling them to swiftly knock out Iraqi command and control systems and possibly prevent Iraqi leaders from communicating effectively with their forces, military analysts have said.

Analysts have expressed concern though that the weapons might, in addition to destroying military targets, destroy nearby hospital equipment, heart pacemakers, and possibly systems in airborne civilian aircraft causing them to crash. According to a story in Aviation Week & Space Technology last month citing an unidentified official, the Israeli military has largely put off development of such weapons—except for possible use in missile defense—out of concern they would be mired in internal, Israeli legal reviews over the prospect of unanticipated collateral damage.

William Arkin, a senior adviser on military matters to Human Rights Watch, has argued for a rigorous legal, political and humanitarian evaluation of HPM weapons before they are deployed.

“Like blinding lasers, like anti-personnel land mines, like cluster bombs, there are weapons out there which are on the edge of whether or not they cause unnecessary suffering or are indiscriminate or fail to comply with our obligations under international humanitarian law,” he told Government Executive magazine earlier this year.

The U.S. military has indicated that it envisions high-power microwave and other directed-energy weapons to be a humane option for warfare.

“We will strike deep in the enemy's territory at the speed of light, with little or no collateral damage or loss of life, crippling his ability to wage aggression,” the Air Force Research Laboratory's Directed Energy Directorate Web site says, prominently describing its “vision of the future.”

“The dangers to people are less from laser, microwave or EMP [electromagnetic pulse] attacks than from conventional attacks,” a 1992 U.S. Army infantry field manual says. “Their terminal effects are less violent and destructive than those of conventional kinetic or chemical energy munitions.”

A similar Army manual advises U.S. forces about side effects of prolonged exposure to high-power microwaves, saying soldiers might experience symptoms of pain, erratic heartbeat, fatigue, weakness or dizziness, nose bleeds, headaches and disorientation. HPM weapons, however, tend to require only rapid, not prolonged, bursts of energy to destroy electronics.

Assessing an Army war simulation involving HPM weapons, a 2000 report by the RAND think tank advises the military to develop clear policy on how the weapons would be used.

“HPM [weapons] would certainly have damaged civilian infrastructure in the [simulated] city. Such use may be construed as violating international law and could cause adverse public opinion. The U.S. government needs to develop clear and comprehensive policy on the use of such weapons,” the report says.

U.S. Requirements

According to Defense Department regulations, the Pentagon's general counsel is required to review new weapons to determine whether they are consistent with U.S. and international laws and treaties before putting them into the field.

“Before microwave weapons are incorporated into the operational community, the Air Force general counsel must first review the weapon system and make a recommendation, which includes considerations of the medical and biological effects as those relate to the \u2018pain and suffering' that the weapon system may inflict,” Air Force Colonel Eileen Walling wrote in a February 2000 paper.

“If approved after a rigorous review, the Air Force lawyers and program managers must prepare for a review that will be conducted at the Department of Defense,” she wrote. The process is time consuming and can last more than nine months “but it assures that programs are thoroughly investigated before the program is formally initiated,” she added.

How the Weapons Might Be Used

Some national security experts have said they see no fundamental legal problems with using HPM weapons.

“On first blush, I don't think this is an inhumane form of conflict, though it could have, as all weaponry does, inhumane consequences,” said John Holum, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security during the Clinton administration.

Questions about collateral damage, Holum said, “are part of the broader difficulty of conducting a war where your principal adversary is hidden among the general population, making it very difficult to distinguish between targets.”

“You may be talking about a weapon here that is sort of the ultimate [for] saving people, that is, putting weapons systems out of operation while not killing the people,” said professor John Moore, who directs the Center for National Security Law at the University of Virginia.

The United States used a more passive form of electromagnetic warfare during the Kosovo conflict, when aircraft dropped special carbon fibers over a radio broadcast station, effectively shutting it down. That operation generated national and international criticism because it attacked a civilian target.

Moore said there should be no problem with developing and using such weapons, depending on how they are used. There is no international prohibition on developing HPM weapons, just as there is no international ban on producing nuclear weapons, he said.

“The only question with respect to any weapons system, whether it's a rock, a knife, or a standard carbine, [is] how it's used, so it would depend specifically on how it's used and whether it's used in a way that generates collateral damage that is excessive in relation to the military effectiveness of the weapon,” he said.

That question is usually addressed through extensive testing. For example, a different sort of electromagnetic weapon unveiled by the Marines last year for use in controlling crowds without killing them was tested extensively on goats and people to measure its safety.

When used briefly, the weapon causes a burning sensation on the skin but no long-term damage, a Marine official told the Marine Corps Times last year. Prolonged use could cause permanent damage or death, the Times suggested, reporting that the period of time defining prolonged use is classified.

Accelerated Deployment

Rumsfeld said high power microwave technologies are in very early stages of development, but he suggested officials might field them nevertheless.

“The unmanned aerial vehicles that were used in Afghanistan, were not, had not reached their full development. They had not been authorized for use. They were still in a development stage and experimental, and yet you use them,” he said.

Pentagon spokesman Marine Lt. Col. Dave Lapan said Rumsfeld was probably referring to the Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle, which is still under development but has seen action in Afghanistan. The United States also used a fighter jet reconnaissance pod still under development during the conflict over Kosovo, Lapan said.

Legal reviews to make sure weapons conform to U.S. and international law might be hastened in situations where they are pulled out of development and put into the field, Lapan said.

“There would still be that process, [but] now it might be speeded up. And ultimately, if the secretary felt this was something the commander needed, he's got to weigh all of the risks and benefits. The general counsel's inputs are just that \u2014 inputs,” Lapan said.

Weapons Possibly Ready

Like the Russian, Chinese and other militaries, the U.S. military has been pursuing HPM weapons technologies for decades, analysts have said.

HPM weapons could be deployed in variety of ways, including by unmanned aerial vehicle, land vehicle, bomb or missile, according to military experts. The Pentagon has been working on a loading a system on an unmanned aerial vehicle that could remain airborne for extended periods and stealthily focus the energy on numerous targets.

Another concept that developers have explored is deploying an HPM weapon on a cruise missile. Defense Systems Daily reported in June 1999 that Los Alamos National Laboratory had developed an HPM weapon that could be deployed by laser-guided bomb or cruise missile. director John Pike, who has extensively catalogued U.S. and foreign weapons capabilities, said the United States has had at least since the early 1980s a “highly classified” cruise missile-launched electromagnetic pulse weapon \u2014 which would cause an effect similar to an HPM but would not focus the energy in one specific direction.

Energy from HPM weapons can be directed at a particular area, but technical challenges remain on projecting high power levels over longer distances to a target, according to experts.

“Increasing the power levels, while simultaneously reducing the size of these microwave systems, will be extremely challenging and technically difficult,” Walling wrote in 2000.

Analysts also have noted difficulties in modulating power levels over distances so that a person close and in front of an HPM emission might suffer strong effects while a person moderately far away would be unfazed.

Walling concluded, however, that “several high-power microwave technologies have matured to the point where they are now ready for the transition from engineering and manufacturing development to deployment as operational weapons.”

The technology “is ready for the transition to active weapons in the U.S. military,” she wrote.