An e-bomb, or electronic bomb, is a non-explosive artillery shell that sends out an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) of enormous power, capable of permanently disabling mechanical and electronic systems. The concept developed in the 1920s, and was later recognized as an unintended consequence of nuclear explosions. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, United States and British scientists had the technology to develop e-bombs. At the same time, some observers warned that terrorists might be capable of building their own, much less sophisticated, devices for a fraction of the cost to a superpower.
Carbon-graphite coils capable of generating an electromagnetic pulse used to destroy electronics equipment— especially communications equipment—can be fitted to cruise missiles. Carbon-graphite equipped cruise missiles were used by U.S.-led forces in raids on Baghdad, Iraq in 1991 and in 2003.
The Compton Effect and its consequences. In 1925, American physicist and future Nobel laureate Arthur H. Compton demonstrated that when a string of subatomic energy packets called photons were fired into atoms with a low atomic number—that is, atoms with a relatively small number of protons in their nuclei—the atoms would eject electrons. This phenomenon, known as the Compton effect, is the principle underlying the e-bomb. If enough atoms eject enough electrons, which have a negative electric charge, the result is a massive electromagnetic pulse.
In 1958, when the United States conducted nuclear tests high above the Pacific Ocean, the explosions sent out bursts of gamma rays, extremely high-frequency electromagnetic waves. These collided with nitrogen and oxygen, which are the two most abundant elements in the atmosphere, and which both have very low atomic numbers—7 and 8 respectively. The result was an electro-magnetic event whose effects were felt thousands of miles away. Street lights in Hawaii were blown out, and radio navigation as far away as Australia was interrupted for up to 18 hours.
Recognizing that these powerful EMPs were a byproduct of nuclear explosions, American and allied scientists set out to harden the defenses of U.S. and NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) electronic systems against disruption from nuclear explosions. Still, as long as the threat of thermonuclear exchange remained real during the Cold War, the EMPs themselves seemed a relatively insignificant side-effect of nuclear explosions.
Developing e-bombs for the modern battlefield. After the Cold War ended, physicists began to explore the use of EMPs as a high-tech weapon to yield a low-tech result: the complete devastation of an enemy's engines, telecommunications, and electronic systems by means of vast energy surges that, by overloading those systems, would render them permanently inoperable. Alarmed by news of Russian advances in the development of an e-bomb in 1998, Western scientists stepped up efforts to create their own e-bomb technology.
In 2000, British scientists announced the development of an e-bomb that could be fired from a long-range 155 mm. artillery gun or multiple-launch rocket system. U.S. scientists developed their own version, which was ready for use in the 2003 mobilization against Iraq. Military leaders leaned against using it, however, precisely because of the bomb's capabilities such as demobilizing hospitals and emergency services. Furthermore, in rebuilding an economy, the devastation of infrastructure caused by an e-bomb could create prohibitive costs. However, for a terrorist organization less concerned with moral and practical compunctions, an e-bomb could be an attractive tool for creating vast destruction at a low cost.
█ FURTHER READING:
Jenkins, Sally. "Peaceful Games, Cold War Sentiment." Washington Post. (February 25, 2002): D1.
Sample, Ian. "Just a Normal Town.…" New Scientist 167, no. 2245 (July 1, 2000): 20.
Squeo, Anne Marie. "Leading the News: U.S. Studies Using 'E-Bomb' in Iraq—Electromagnetic Weapon Can Permanently Damage Telecom, Power Systems." Wall Street Journal. (February 20, 2003): A3.
Wilson, Jim. "E-Bomb." Popular Mechanics 178, no. 9 (September 2001): 50–53.