Foreign Policy in Focus
Feb. 24, 2002
When the Bush Administration talks about Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), it means nuclear, chemical and biological devices. But the U.S. is preparing to use a WMD of its own that will accomplish at the speed of light what 10 years of bombing was unable to do in Southeast Asia: turn a country back to the stone age.
The device, sometimes referred to as a “microwave bomb,” sometimes as an “E-Bomb,” will literally bring a nation to its knees by destroying all electrical devices–permanently. Every battery, every semiconductor, every electrical line and every power source will simply cease to function.
Asked about using the weapon, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld recently said that “you never know,” then added that the U.S. “might use it.”
While the Administration was being coy about employing the device, military analysts were rubbing their hands in anticipation. “Kabammy! A huge electronic wave comes along and sends out a few thousand volts. Wham! Your cell phone or your computer dies,” says Roger McCarthy, chair of Exponent Failure Analysis Associates.
But not only cell phones and computers will die. The E-Bomb will fry all communications cables, radio towers, phone systems, and wires. Traveling through the air or conducted by everything from railroad tracks to plumbing pipes, an enormous electromagnetic pulse (EMP) will flash into homes, businesses and hospitals, and essentially terminate the 20th century.
It will also violate the 1949 Geneva Conventions, and in particular, Protocol 1, Part IV, Article 48, which clearly states that warring parties “shall at all times distinguish between the civilian population and combatants and between civilian objects and military objectives and accordingly shall direct their operations only against military objectives.”
Article 51 specifically prohibits attacks employing a “method or means of combat which cannot be directed at a specific military objective.”
Firing one of these devices over Baghdad would indeed immobilize the tanks of the Republican Guard, as well as its anti-aircraft missiles, but it would also shut down every hospital and ambulance. It would also destroy every generator and water pump in a city of 4.5 million people.
Given that some 5,000 Iraqi children die each month, according to the World Health Organization, many of them as a result of water borne diseases caused by a decade of sanctions, civilians are likely to seriously suffer the brunt of such a device.
Again, Article 54 of the Geneva Conventions explicitly forbids rendering “useless” any “drinking water installations.”
Iraq is one of the most urban societies in the Middle East. Some 76 percent of its population reside in cities, compared with 61 percent in Iran and 45 percent in Egypt. It is also a very young population. Over 50 percent of its population is 15 years or younger, and children are far more susceptible to water borne diseases, like cholera, than are adults.
The effects of EMPs have been know since a 1958 high altitude nuclear test in the Pacific inadvertently disrupted telephones, street lights and radio transmission in Hawaii and Australia. The initial effect of a nuclear explosion is an EMP wave, and its results have been closely studied since those tests.
The Livermore and Los Alamos national labs have recently produced a rather simple device with a devastating effect. Mounted on a cruise missile, or even attached to a helicopter, the “bomb” forces an explosion through a copper coil, producing what is called the “Compton effect,” or electrons traveling at 186,000 miles per second.
The effects are virtually instantaneous and the damage permanent. Every electrical device that it touches will have to be replaced, from microchips and semiconductors to wiring. If the cost for such reconstruction in Iraq has been calculated, the figures are classified.
Supporters of the device see it as a “humane” weapon because it is not supposed to kill people. “The electromagnetic pulse generator is emerging as one of the strongest contenders…to find effective weapons to defeat an enemy without causing loss of Life,” writes David Fulghum, an EMP expert.
But as the Geneva Conventions make clear, this kind of attack is a violation of international law because it targets services that civilians will need to survive a war.
Imagine a hospital without electricity or backup generators, serviced by immobile ambulances, their ignition systems fused by a massive EMP. “Code Blue,” hospital shorthand for emergency, will become “Code Black.”
The temptation to try a new whiz bang in wartime conditions is likely to be overwhelming.
“The only time you get realistic feedback on new capabilities is during wartime,” says Bob Martinage from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “The military will take advantage of that time to test new systems.”
But that “feedback” will violate international law, derail a modern society, and put 23 million Iraqi civilians in harm’s way.