EWEAPONS

One Zap and Your Computer Is Dead

Inventor David Schriner calls it a "transient electromagnetic source." But you can just think of it as the perfect terrorist weapon for the wired age.

Schriner's latest device can send an electromagnetic pulse through a wall to shut down computers up to 80 feet away. Imagine, he says, if a terrorist pulled up in front of the New York Stock Exchange with one of these babies on the passenger seat. As the US becomes exponentially more dependent on electronics, it becomes increasingly vulnerable to just such attack - and a disabled Internet node or cell phone network could cost billions.

American officials have been worrying - and dreaming - about the potential of EMP weapons since they unleashed Test Shot Starfish in 1962. The 1.4-megaton hydrogen blast 250 miles above Johnston Atoll in the mid-Pacific unintentionally knocked out radio communications and satellite equipment for thousands of miles around.

Schriner, a retired Navy weapons engineer, told Congress in 1998 that terrorists wouldn't need weapons-grade explosives to unwire the US. All they'd need is a few hundred dollars' worth of hardware from Home Depot and Radio Shack, a bunch of car batteries, and some know-how.

Congress was frightened enough to give Schriner $1 million to build such a device. The grant is heading for renewal this year. The devices on the drawing board are portable and small enough to fit in a van, yet powerful enough to take down airliners or pull every critical patient in a large hospital off life support.

British defense firm Matra BAe Dynamics last summer announced it had built a battlefield electronics killer around a small explosive. (Kind of like the ebomb in Ocean's 11 called a Z-pinch which creates a buurst of energy by rapidly collapses two opposing magnetic fields.)

The US Air Force has been testing similar weapons since at least 1993. The revolution in small, cheap electronics has also spawned the means of its own demise. In theory, the defense is easy.

"Sometimes the fix is a 10-cent device, like putting a ferrite doughnut around the mouse cord," Schriner says. "But until people know about the threat, they can't do anything about it."

The same device on a just slightly larger scale could be used to shut down the Power Grid.

- Dan Baum


 

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