The Electromagnetic Pulse Bomb


War fever drives the ebullient American media to wax enthusiastically on miraculous inventions that could lay waste to Iraq. And the most miraculous of all is the electromagnetic pulse bomb.

Although not yet glimpsed, the e-bomb is thought to be a cruise missile, or possibly a dropped munition, fitted with a special warhead that not only explodes with a bang but also emits a burst of radio waves aimed at shorting out unshielded electronics. The Directed Energy Directorate is probably the culprit behind its development, although the organization won’t cop to it directly.

Talk of the secret electromagnetic pulse bomb approaches mythology, taking on a uniquely American demented quality. Bubbling over with excitement at something they’ve never seen, Beltway amateur generals muse openly on a wondrous capacity to destroy Iraqi civilization without harming people, or of an ability to neutralize stockpiles of chemical or biological weapons. Just exactly how a missile emitting a burst of radio waves neutralizes caches of mustard gas or dried anthrax spores is left to the imagination of nitpickers. How the bomb will stop soldiers with old-fashioned artillery, automatic weapons, or tanks is also given short shrift.

What is certain is that the Pentagon has been interested in electromagnetic pulses since it noticed at the Johnston Island test range in the late 1960s that high atmospheric nuclear explosions short-circuited electronics far from actual test blasts.

Harnessing the phenomenon without producing a multi-megaton explosion has proven more elusive, but some still think this is a legitimate option. “It is widely known that we Americans contemplated, briefly and in a non-pervasive fashion, a nuclear . . . laydown on Iraq as an exceptionally high-effectiveness commencement to Operation Desert Storm,” a mad scientist from a U.S. nuclear weapons lab nattered to Congress in 1999. The menacing comments were part of an unusual hearing convened to persuade American small businesses to harden themselves before nations like Iraq or North Korea attacked us with electromagnetic bombs.

While manic boasts regarding the munition are easy to find, not so easily heard are insider doubts that it functions as advertised. And since the damage of electronic equipment would be difficult to see in the fog of all-out war, its value as a practical weapon remains suspect.

In any case, if the electromagnetic pulse bomb exists and if it works—two big ifs—the Iraqi people probably won’t notice it amid the hundreds of other cruise missiles. But if the electricity should go out in a hospital due to an accidental “hit” from one of them, they could always just complain to George Bush, or to Pentagon war correspondents.