Schriner Engineering Inc. of Ridgecrest, Calif. made the device at the request of Congress and the Department of Defense to prove that a weapon of such size and power could be crafted absent classified information or materials.
The announcement further fuels anxieties among a growing bevy of analysts and lawmakers that terrorist groups can build similar weapons to prey on the United States' acute dependence on sophisticated electronics.
"This proves that we are enormously vulnerable," Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md., told United Press International. "This weapon we believe is powerful enough that, if parked at end of a runway, it could bring down airplanes. It is also powerful enough that from the street it could disable or destroy computers and microelectronic chips inside buildings."
A company official at Schriner told UPI that two prototypes, which took about one year to build, were being shipped in trucks to the U.S. Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland.
Lawmakers and journalists are scheduled to view a demonstration of the device Tuesday. The prototypes, as of press time, were in Tennessee.
One weapon can be contained in a Volkswagen van, and the other fits inside two boxes that could be shipped easily using standard delivery services such as UPS, said Randy Bernard, vice president of business development at Schriner.
"We've built an RF emitter using only commercially available hardware and no specialized knowledge of physics that you might only find in a national laboratory," Bernard told UPI in a telephone interview. "We are a company of engineers. We basically used good engineering practices and catalogues from places like Radio Shack."
Bernard was recently given permission to discuss the weapon but would not divulge details regarding its power outputs, range or specific effects on targets.
"That would put us in the realm of a classification issue," he said. "I can say that the type of materials and technologies that went into it is based on open source literature and all materials we purchased were ordered out of catalogues or off the Internet. Some stuff even came from eBay."
The system's components, according to Bernard, include Lexan, a polycarbonate bulletproof material used in place of glass; transformer oil (used to control electrical currents in transformers atop power poles) and capacitors (electrical components that store electrical charges).
"Speaking generally, what this device does is put out a pulsed broadband radio frequency wave the characteristics of which allow it to couple into a broad array of electronics," he said. "In the same way that a radar wave is narrowband and can be likened to a rifle, this wave form is very broadband and can be thought of as a shotgun."
"The message is that certainly any number of groups in this and other countries can do just what we did. We'll demonstrate (at Aberdeen) that, yes, by golly, this could be a bad thing to have on the streets."
The dissolution of the Soviet Union, a rise in global communications and increased terrorist threats provide a backdrop against which such threats are measured.
"It is unfortunately true that people anywhere around the globe get access to technology almost as advanced as the Department of Defense," said Jim Lewis, director of technology and public policy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC. "It's a leveling of technology that means people can get their hands on the good stuff."
Lewis said it would become increasingly harder for authorities to stem rogue access to destructive technologies, but he doubted that terrorists groups were building RF weapons like Schriner's.
"Terrorists like Osama Bin Ladin typically tend to prefer more dramatic weapons, the big, loud and messy kind," he said.
Bernard stressed that while the threat of RF weapons was real, a few relatively simple countermeasures can mitigated it, including building metal screening around sensitive devices, using aluminum siding on buildings and fitting computers in metal boxes instead of plastic, which is invisible to radio frequency.
"It is real easy to protect against this but we as a society are not doing it," he said.
Experts told UPI that successful countermeasures required cooperation between counterintelligence agencies and domestic law enforcement, principally the FBI.
"At this point, this is a congressional and DOD project," said Steven Berry, spokesman for the FBI. "I would rather wait until they come out with their recommendations."
Copyright 2001 by United Press International.
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