Editor's Note: This is the first of a two-part series. It describes the capability of a lone-wolf terrorist to inflict major, anonymous damage on the United States. The second will describe how easy it would be to create a portable EMP weapon.
WASHINGTON – The nation's attention of late has focused on a nuclear bomb or an intense solar storm as the source of an electromagnetic pulse, or EMP, assault on the nation's vulnerable electrical grid system that could fry our electronics and wreak havoc on critical infrastructures.
Estimates are that tens of millions of fatalities could occur in the aftermath of such an event as food, fuel and power supplies evaporate and the nation is transported instantly back to the 18th-century lifestyle without a power grid or anything else electronic.
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However, a similar threat has emerged from the so-called lone-wolf terrorist who can devise a portable EMP device and aim it at computers in a building, telecommunications linkages and banking automated teller machines – all on which the society has come to rely heavily for present-day existence.
And it can be done without a trace of who did it.
Recent concerns have been raised by the Federal Bureau of Investigation that the lone wolf – someone who strikes out on his or her own without any group affiliation – is considered a larger threat than one from al-Qaida or other organized groups.
Such individuals either may see themselves as supporting the views of various terrorist groups or may have a personal grudge.
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Such an individual with a penchant for electronics can pull together components from a Radio Shack or electronic store – even order the components off of selected Internet websites – and fashion a radio frequency, or RF, weapon.
As microprocessors become smaller but more sophisticated, they are even more susceptible to an RF pulse. The high power microwave from an RF weapon produces a short, very high power pulse, said to be billions of watts in a nanosecond, or billionths of a second.
This so-called burst of electromagnetic waves in the gigahertz microwave frequency band can melt electrical circuitry and damage integrated circuits, causing them to fail. Ironically, this type RF weapon won't affect humans, although there are some forms that experts say can affect the body's own electrical system.
The pulse from an RF weapon travels at the speed of light and can be fired without any visible emanation. These weapons can come in ultra-wideband or narrow-band, with the latter acting like a laser emitting a single frequency at very high power. This pulse then is directed at a specific electronic target.
What makes RF weapons so dangerous is their compactness and ability to be powered by hand-carried energy sources. Experts say that their range of intensity is from 200 meters to 1,000 meters, or from some 656 feet to 3,281 feet.
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Concern over the effects of RF weapons has been known to the U.S. Congress since at least 1997 when retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Robert L. Schweitzer testified before the congressional Joint Economic Committee on RF weapons and their impact on the U.S. infrastructure.
His concern then was that readily available technology, much of it off-the- shelf, places the capability of making RF weapons in the hands of lone wolves or more organized terrorists.
Given the rush to decontrol critical technologies due to the downward spiral of Western economies, they are often available to other countries without the needed scrutiny of U.S. licensing officials and are readily available for people residing in the U.S.
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When he testified, Schweitzer called for drawing up a list of those technologies needed to make RF weapons and placing them on what was then called the Militarily Critical Technologies List, or MTCL, which was developed by the U.S. Department of Defense. While the MTCL wasn't a control list, it did show how technologies relate to the development of weapons systems.
However, many of the items listed on the MTCL were not placed on control lists of dual-use technologies administered by the U.S. Department of Commerce or the munitions list overseen by the U.S. Department of State.
Today, that list remains only as a reference and no longer is updated. Everything on the MTCL isn't subject to export controls and isn't referred to that often to show how certain technologies relate to developing weapons systems.
Part of the reason for virtually ignoring the MTCL today is economic, but the basis for eliminating the MTCL mostly was political, since calling them "critical" suggested that they be subject to export controls and then would interfere with the ability to conduct business in a competitive world.
At the time of Schweitzer's testimony, however, consideration of placing certain technologies under export control was meant to deflect the ability of countries and terrorist groups from easily gaining access to those technologies.
One of the items Schweitzer gave as an example of technology that should be controlled was Reltron tubes. He said that these tubes can be small or large, generate intense radio frequency pulses and can be used as RF weapons.
While RF weapon components are on the MTCL, Schweitzer said at the time that even then there were no up-to-date guidelines or directives on limiting their access to end-users. He added that several countries have RF weapons programs and Russia admits to selling some technologies to various countries, making them readily available.
"Users of new weapons can be criminals, individuals, or organized gangs of narco or domestic terrorists – or a determined, organized, well-funded foreign adversary, either a group or nation who hates us," Schweitzer said.
RF weapons emit a non-nuclear electromagnetic pulse, even though they project the same type of pulse that a nuclear weapon does.
"As a practical matter," Schweitzer testified, "a piece of electronic gear on the ground, in a vehicle, ship or plane does not really care whether it is hit by a nuclear magnetic pulse or a non-nuclear one.
"The effect is the same," he said. "It burns out the electronics. The same is true of the computers in this Senate office building, in industry, or on Wall Street."
Schweitzer also referred to the possible existence of radio-frequency munitions which contain high explosives that produce radio frequency energy "as their primary kill mechanism."
"Applications or potential targets would include all military computers, circuit boards or chips, of any description and include …key components of our military and national infrastructure," he said. "They would have equal impact on civilian targets with the advantage less power would be required."
Schweitzer pointed out that the effects of RF and EMP weapons have been known to presidential commissions, the Infrastructure Protection Task Force, a Critical Infrastructure Working Group, an Information Warfare School at National Defense University as well as divisions on the Joint Staff in the Pentagon.
At the time, Schweitzer pointed out that there were some 90 to 100 references in 26 pages of the 70-page Quadrennial Defense Review that speaks to this new threat and there were some 2,800 references "while a more thorough search found many tens of thousands of documents where the key words 'radio frequency weapons' appear.
"For many reasons the knowledge is diffused," Schweitzer testified. "In the public sector the subject has yet to draw any real attention or concerted action."
Schweitzer added that while the federal government is aware of these threats from RF weapons, "a general understanding is lacking. This is true not only of RF weapons, but of their immediate threat to our (Department of Defense) and national infrastructure."
Nevertheless, Schweitzer said that vulnerable targets include airplanes, ships and vehicles.
"Of interest is the fact that we are doubly vulnerable because we are, and will remain, in an era of dual-use of military and civilian systems," he said.
As an example, Schweitzer pointed to military communications.
"Our military communications now passes over civilian networks," he said. "If an electromagnetic pulse takes out the telephone systems, we are in deep trouble because our military and non-military nets are virtually inseparable.
"It is almost equally impossible to distinguish between the U.S. national telecommunication network and the global one," Schweitzer said. "What this means is that it is finally becoming possible to do what Sun Tzu wrote about 2,000 years ago: to conquer an enemy without fighting.
"The paradigm of war may well be changing," Schweitzer said. "If you can take out the civilian economic infrastructure of a nation, then that nation in addition to not being able to function internally cannot deploy its military by air or sea, or supply them with any real effectiveness – if at all."
Schweitzer warned that in addition to the advanced countries, "pariah" nations have similar interests in developing RF weapons and some have the financial resources to develop or procure them.
"Russian information on RF weapons has been moving across borders for many years," he said. "The horse is out of the barn."
To determine whether cheap, home-made RF weapons could be built by people with little technical know-how, the U.S. Army a few years ago conducted tests at its Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland.
The tests, conducted on behalf of the Department of Defense, were successful.
"The message here is that any number of groups in the U.S. or other countries can do just this, relatively easily and at relatively low cost," said Mike Powell of Schriner Engineering in Ridgecrest, California. Schriner Engineering made the weapons.
The RF weapons were made from components readily available from electronic stores and out of catalogs. They generated an extremely short but powerful pulse of electromagnetic radio waves.
Powell said that such RF weapons also would be capable of bringing down an aircraft.
"Our whole nation is vulnerable," said David Schriner, who helped design the RF device. "We dance along with all this high technology, and we're very dependent on it. But if it breaks, where will we be?"
As a side note, Schriner sought to bring to the U.S. Capitol an RF weapon he made himself for display purposes when he testified before the Joint Economic Committee as far back as February 1998.
When the Sergeant-at-Arms to the U.S. House of Representatives heard what the capability of the device was – namely, capable of frying the electronics of computers that were in all the Capitol office buildings – Schriner was not allowed to bring the device into the building.
In his testimony titled "The Design and Fabrication of a Damage Inflicting RF Weapons by 'Back Yard' Methods,” Schriner told of how he made one in his own garage.
His point was to show that the low-end technology needed to fashion together an RF weapon was readily available at very reasonable cost. In fact, his testimony went into detail on how a person can fashion such a device in his own home.
Schweitzer similarly had told the congressional Joint Economic Committee that he had challenged a group of young scientists from a national laboratory to devise an RF weapon. He testified that they had gone to a Radio Shack and bought the components needed to make the RF weapon. They then mounted it on top of a minivan.
"I had suggested a pickup truck and they didn't have a pickup truck, so it went on top of a minivan," Schweiter said.
"So, you've got a situation on the one hand where you could put components from Radio Shack inside of a van no bigger than a UPS (United Postal Services) truck with an antenna. And, that's really what an RF weapon often looks like, a radar or antenna showing, and drive it around the Dirksen (Senate Office) Building, make a series of passes over the Pentagon or the White House, or the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration facility out at Langley) and pulse," Schweitzer said.
The FAA facility at Langley, Va., just outside Washington up the George Washington Parkway shares a highly guarded campus with the Central Intelligence Agency.
With a radar loaded in the back of a van or pickup truck, it can be directed at whatever target is intended. Because the radar is directional, it won't have any effect on the vehicle carrying the radar as long as it is pointed away from its electronics.
"You make a number of passes around the building and emit these pulses," Schweitzer said. "They go through concrete walls. Barriers are no resistance to them. And, they will either burn out or upset all of the computers or the electronic gear in the building."
Given such power, it may be able to penetrate the walls at CIA, even though the windows are covered with a fine copper mesh to avoid listening devices picking up on classified conversations inside the buildings.
A surplus radar which operates at a multiple Gigahertz level and capable of reaching out over a thousand kilometers easily can be fashioned into a directional RF weapon.
Schweitzer in his testimony had pointed out that a radar mounted in the back of a truck and aimed toward traffic or buildings would make a very effective RF weapon.
Open source information also has documented how an RF weapon can be used against aircraft in an Intentional Electro Magnetic Interference, or IEMI. In a 2005 technical paper titled "Potential IEMI Threats Against Civilian Air Traffic," D. J. Serafin outlined such a scenario.
"An airport area could be a selected target for (Electro Magnetic) terrorism due to the high concentration of electronics equipment likely to be perturbed by EM threats, so producing broad chaos," Serafin wrote.
Serafin said that the main areas for a terrorist RF attack would be the airport terminal, including registration and transit areas, the traffic control tower, the parking areas for the planes and the touch down and take-off runways.
"Potential targets inside these areas include communication and navigation systems devoted to flight aircraft and safety…as well as computer networks…"
Sarafin gave the scenarios on introducing a small RF weapon concealed inside a suitcase, placed near terminal computer networks and a truck-mounted RF weapon, which could be located near an airport with direct view of the runways with a range extended to 1,000 meters, or the length of three 100-yard football fields.
In the case of Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C., like many airports throughout the U.S., such a van or car could park at a lot adjacent to the runway where planes take off or land. On the flight path of the aircraft flying into Reagan National Airport, they fly over the Potomac River coming from the north and either fly across or near Roosevelt Island, which is a U.S. Park Service-administered site complete with woods and deer, with a statute dedicated to the first environmental president, Theodore Roosevelt.
There are many areas on the island in which someone easily could set up a radio-frequency weapon under the cover of a canopy of trees and through the various openings aim the device at aircraft that either are making their approaches or taking off, depending on wind direction.
In his scenario of introducing RF weapons into the area of the airport, Sarafin provided detailed descriptions of the microwave bandwidth, distance and megahertz ranges for the most effect – something which a technically competent terrorist would easily understand and duplicate.
Targets for the RF weapon would include such aircraft equipment as onboard navigation and global positioning systems. Because of the antenna on top of the aircraft's fuselage, these systems would be vulnerable, as would the display unit or computer inside the cockpit.
While the scenario concerned aircraft, there are reports that RF weapons have been used to defeat security systems, disable police communications and disrupt bank computers.
More advanced RF weapons can jam satellites, cause aircraft to crash, create pipeline explosions and large gas spills and cause life-saving medical equipment to malfunction. They also can be used to cause public water systems to malfunction and potentially create flooding as a result.
F. Michael Maloof, a senior WND/G2Bulletin writer, is a former security policy analyst in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He can be contacted at [email protected].