Our global societal structure consists of a complex intertwining of “threads”, all of which are interdependent and vital to the functioning of and ultimate survival of modern society as a whole. The spectrum of weapons available to terrorists has grown to include devices and methodologies to cause massive disruption of our critical infrastructure, such as power generation and distribution systems.

The growing technological sophistication of terrorist and criminal groups, has created a new genre of evolving threats that seem to rival the musings of fantasy and science fiction. Our continued and expanding dependence on information technology has created a ripe environment for opportunistic attacks. Covert actions involving electronic /cyber-attacks are increasing in both frequency and sophistication. Critical infrastructure in the U.S and abroad is quite vulnerable to both cyber-attacks by malicious computer viruses and worms or electromagnetic attacks, which could severely impair essential services, such as electrical power, telecommunications, health care, transportation, water supply, and the Internet. In cyber terrorism, it is common for the perpetrators to deploy various ways to sabotage information systems, such as the use of the “Trojan horse” program or a “worm” that can literally replicate and “infect” multiple systems.

The critical industrial control systems of petrochemical and nuclear power generating stations, are automated and controlled by computer systems which can be attacked and create critical system shutdowns, and even cause toxic chemical and radiological releases, capable of generating mass casualties and a variety of operational and logistical challenges. In worse case scenarios, the systems of health care, public safety and public health assets may be simultaneously attacked by computer viral, denial of service and/or electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attacks crippling or even eliminating the emergency response capabilities of entire communities Sophisticated and resilient information technology firewalls, such as what would be expected among national defense assets, have been penetrated and affected by several cyber-attacks from foreign governments, and even private individuals.

In addition, directed energy weapons have been demonstrated to produce profound physiological and neuropsychological effects on targeted populations. For example, focused microwave energy weapons, as well as laser–type systems, can heat and destroy living tissue. During the Cold War, the former Soviet Union was known to employ microwave energy systems against the US embassy personnel in the hope of provoking adverse neural and psychological responses. In the 1991 Persian Gulf War, cruise missiles with “soft bombs” were extensively employed in Iraq. These soft bombs sprayed conductive graphite wire and metal shards over open-air transformer switching yards that connected power stations to the electrical distribution grid. When the graphite threads fell onto the electrical wires of the switching stations, they would short out the power lines and send surges of electricity through the power grid. Improvisational devices, such as aluminum coated Mylar strips and metallic kite wires, may be used to effect similar disruptions.

There is little doubt and no question that power generation and distribution systems will be tangible targets for various terrorist groups via cyber-assaults or electromagnetic attacks.

John Warden III, the author of Operation Thunder, the strategic bombing plan used in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, lays out the ‘five rings” of a strategic air attack model in the context of electromagnetically vulnerable target sets, and essentially to disrupt command, control, and communication capabilities, as well as financial and transportation systems, for example. In fact, the U.S. deployed such devices in Kosovo and Serbia. The “target hardening” of various critical components of our civilian infrastructure is virtually non-existent, as opposed to national defense and intelligence systems, and even “defense-in-depth” protection can have vulnerabilities that would allow for impairment and disruption.

An electromagnetic pulse device (EMP) or weapon system (also known as an “E-bomb”) has the capability to generate an energy pulse capable of disrupting a myriad of electrical and electronic systems, to include vehicle ignition systems, computers, cell phones and related equipment, radios, and public utility power supplies. The EMP effect was first described in 1870 by Heinrich Hertz, and later with experimental detonations of nuclear weapons. The EMP of a nuclear detonation is measured in nanoseconds; however it can radiate throughout long distances, especially when the detonation occurs as an air burst. While an EMP effect may be limited to a finite area, larger devices may generate an EMP with subsequent effects and “electronic kill” capability for several miles and in all directions. In 1962, the EMP effects of a 1.4 megaton yield nuclear detonation were clearly demonstrated 400 km above the mid-Pacific ocean. The EMP from this detonation resulted in the destruction of radios and satellite equipment, and the ionization effects blocked radio communications for 30 minutes. Power system failures were experienced as far away as the Hawaiian Islands.

There are other devices and methods to create EMP effects, such as conventional high order explosives used in combination with a flux compression generator, which is portable and may be even operated remotely. This device is simplistic in design and operation and requires conventional explosives, such as TNT, copper wiring and tubing, and a capacitor. Another is the use of magnetohydrodynamic generator technology (MHD), which has been extensively studied by the former Soviet Union. MHD technology has the advantages of not possessing moving parts and compactness.

High power microwave generators are other sources of potential weapons that may be deployed for a variety of combat, sabotage and terrorist operations. These systems are also known as high energy radio frequency weapons. The most straightforward HPM weapon is a viractor (virtual cathode-ray oscillator) which can generate a very powerful electron beam that can be focused on an anode within a tube and be utilized to generate ultra-high power microwaves in the range of 170 kW to over 40 GW in microwave frequencies.

In the area of directed energy weapons, categories include microwave radiation emitters, particle beam generators, and lasers. Directed energy weapons rely on electromagnetic waves or subatomic particles that impact at or near the speed of light. In 1954, the maser (Microwave Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation) was invented by Charles Townes and Arthur Schawlow. Lasers (Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation) utilize a visible light source, as opposed to microwaves. Lasers have common tactical usage, not as a weapon per se, but rather as a targeting system for another weapon, such as a missile or “smart bomb”, e.g. acquiring and lighting a target objective. Lasers tend to be the most readily accessible and obtainable non-conventional directed energy weapons for offensive use.

Direct antipersonnel uses of lasers are possible, as high intensity laser beams are injurious to ocular structures and skin. Lasers are known to inflict blinding injuries, and have been successfully aimed at airline (fixed-wing) and helicopter pilots, for example. Lasers may cause retinal lesions and hemorrhages. Because of the large skin surface area, the risk for dermal (skin) injury is greater than potential ocular (eye injury). However, skin injuries from lasers are much less serious than eye injuries. Skin injury from lasers is due to a) Thermal injury as a result of direct contact or the specular reflections of a laser, or b) Photochemical injury, which occurs over time from ultraviolet (U.V.) exposure to the direct beam.

The International Committee of the Red Cross Battlefield Laser Classification lists several tactical categories and subcategories of tactical lasers and their uses and projected effects. Category C lasers, for example, are designed as antipersonnel systems and have been deployed in wartime, such as the deployment of the British Navy’s Laser Dazzle Sight (LDS). This system was employed on British naval systems vessels and used during the 1982 Falklands War. The Chinese 33-kg ZM -87 portable laser disturber is marketed to the Third World as an antipersonnel and anti-sensor system. The level of attenuation and wavelength on antipersonnel lasers may be adjusted by terrorist perpetrators

Note:It must be emphasized that adequate protective goggles and glasses must be made available to all first responders responding to a credible threat of lasers being used as a terrorist weapon.

Microwave radiation emitters-Chronic exposure to high power microwaves (HPMs) can have deleterious human health effects that include disruption of physiological mechanisms, thermal injuries, and profound psychological effects, as well as acute fear and panic reactions. Effects can include intense sensations of warmth, headaches, confusion, generalized fatigue and malaise, weakness, and vertigo. Effects are dependent upon power output and distance from the device.

Particle beam generators-These devices employ a particle beam of directed flow of atomic or subatomic particles and also generate X-rays (penetrating and ionizing radiation) at the point of contact. Victims can be expected to be seen with radiation-type burns and other types of radiation-induced injury. These devices are available, but are still in developmental stages and considered not to be readily accessible to terrorist factions.

In closing, the evolving threat of electronic and directed energy warfare and terrorism is a clear and present danger. The impacts on infrastructure and populations would be devastating and presents daunting challenges to preparedness, mitigation, emergency response and community resiliency and recovery.

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Frank G. Rando possesses over 30 years of real world experience as a public safety professional,clinician, educator ,emergency and crisis manager ,author and consultant in the areas of tactical ,disaster and operational medicine, weapons and tactics, law enforcement /criminal investigations ,counterterrorism, hazardous materials management and emergency response ,toxicology, environmental safety and health,and health care and public health emergency management .