The Next ‘Alien Attack’


Prof. Chandima Gomes

Head, Centre for Electromagnetic and Lightning Protection Research, Malaysia

It was a cold February in 1997. As a PhD student of Uppsala University, Sweden, I was attending my first international conference in snow filled Zurich in Switzerland. The EMC Zurich Symposium at ETH, one of the most modern Universities in Europe, had a special session on an emerging topic at that time. It was referred as IEMI or Intentional Electromagnetic Interference. I was a tiny sprat among giants.

They were discussing electromagnetic emitters in the microwave bands that could be used by both state and terrorist organizations to damage computer networks, sabotage industrial processes, break security systems and even destroy military and aviation systems.

Although there were many discussions about threats and risk assessments, no one went deep into any research output. Only, the Swedish Defense Research Agency, popularly known as FOI gave some insight into their experiments through which they could bring a fast moving Volvo car into an instantaneous standstill by operating a roadside-mounted microwave emitter.

Since then, I attended this biennial symposium continuously until it faded away a few years ago. At each of these symposia, an IEMI sub-event was organized where the scientists discussed about threats and risks. It seemed that Sweden, France and USA were progressing at rapid pace in the field, however, the outcomes were always far hidden in the colourful slides that they presented.

Once I finished my PhD in the late 1990s, I tried my best to start IEMI research in South Asia. However, none of my European colleagues in the field were interested. Once you finish your PhD and back in your developing world, the research scenario seems quite different.

What is an Electromagnetic Weapon…?

Microwaves are a part of electromagnetic radiation that is extensively used in mobile communication. Most of us know the word "microwave" in relation with cooking as microwave oven is an integral part of the modern life. However, what many people do not know is that focused microwaves can destroy or upset most of the electronics that we use in our daily life.

One can easily convert the magnetron removed from an old microwave oven, connected with a foldable type antenna with few circuitries into a lethal microwave weapon that can be concealed even in a briefcase. Such technology is not rocket science and accessible to even an amateur electrician who surfs the net for few hours. What he needs simply is some practical knowledge in RF and antenna theory.

Once the weapon is made the attacker can walk into a bank and illuminate the whole premises with microwaves until the computer, security or any other electronic network is damaged. One may hardly suspect a well dressed gentleman with an expensive briefcase walking around an office building.

If the attacker fails on the first day he may visit the place again and again until the mission is accomplished. Even when he achieves his objective, no one will detect the source of damage. When few banks get their computer systems corrupted sequentially, it may become an "ALIEN ATTACK" in the news headlines.

With little more advanced equipment, which can be bought over the shelf in many former Soviet Union breakaway fragments, weapons can be developed to bring down even an air plane while taking off or landing. The only requirement is the ability of a microwave-emitter-mounted vehicle reaching the proximity of airport premises. Such emitter can be covered with a canvas and the attacker can make many attempts until he hits the target. Another ALIEN ATTACK as no one sees the cause.

If Sri Lanka does not start its own research on this subject soon the country will be at the mercy of developed countries which can tag exorbitant prices for the defence against IEMI. The modern life-style heavily dependent on automated, computer controlled or remotely operated systems may be in chaos if precaution are not taken against such lethal attacks.

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