Nuclear warfare was the nature of the threat during the cold war. Today, cyber warfare is replacing the traditional types of military engagement between countries with cyber capabilities. Having optimal national security requires an ability to predict the next emerging and disruptive technologies, and the capability to develop weapons and defense systems for these threats. As electronics become ever more integrated into the functioning of daily life, electronic weapons with the capability to disrupt society will become and increasing threat.
Electronic weapons function by releasing electromagnetic pulses into the atmosphere. Most people may be aware of the electromagnetic pulse that can be generated by a nuclear bomb. There has been much hysteria surrounding the results of a successful EMP attack that could destroy electronics that run our hospitals, transportation systems, satellites, and communication systems. How could society function if the world were to suddenly go dark?
These new type of weapons, already being developed by key defense contractors like Raytheon, are designed differently. These devices are pointed energy systems that focus a large amount of electromagnetic energy on a single point instead of releasing it as a spread in the atmosphere. The literature on these types of weapons suggests that they would only do significant damage to electronics and not to humans. Though it is true that the electromagnetic energy generated from common devices, such as cell phones, do not cause bodily harm, it would seem unlikely that such a concentrated amount of energy couldn’t do damage to the human body.
Nonetheless, these devices are already being developed and implemented by the United States Military. Planes such as the F-35 and Bowing Growler use this technology for defensive and offensive purposes respectively. Ships are being fitted with active electronically scanned array (ASEA) guns that have to capacity to disrupt a swarm of 30 boat motors. The explosive payload on missiles has been replaced with this type of technology to target electronics as well.
Besides these common military applications however, Raytheon has developed the most interesting implementation of electromagnetic weaponry. The Active Denial System (ADS) is designed to heat the moisture in a persons skin, resulting in a reaction to flee the area. These systems were even shipped to Iraq, but were never implemented in combat before they were sent home.
There have also been many developments in ways to defend against an electronic attack. Most notably would be the implementation of Faraday cages to shield any emittance of electromagnetic energy by using conductive materials. Planes can be fitted with faraday cage shields in order to thwart ASEA attacks. Even materials such as concrete are being added with conductive material to provide potential shields for buildings.
There are a variety of ethical issues surrounding the use of these weapons. Until studies can be conducted that conclusively show high levels of electromagnetic radiation can cause damage to humans (such as cancer development) these devices will continue to be marketed as the newest and best way to engage in warfare with few casualties. For the time being though, most of these weapons will be designed to target electronics and not humans as a result of their negative, sci-fi personification by most of the general public.