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Wednesday, February 07, 2007

If I were a terrorist.... part 3: Futureweapons of terror

Nearly ten years ago when I first got to thinking along these lines I asked myself, exactly what is a weapon?

A weapon is of course, anything used to cause harm to life and property. I tried to get more specific and came up with a further definition: A weapon is any device used to deliver kinetic energy to a target.

Of course, this doesn't work with poisons and diseases, so I'll have to amend that to "a conventional weapon is..." (OK, what about incindiaries, explosives, etc? Fire is kinetic energy on the molecular level, same for futuristic energy weapons.)

The first weapons used the mechanical advantage of levers, such as a club or staff, to magnify the kinetic energy that could be delivered by muscle power. Soon after it was discovered that if one took the same energy and delivered it to a smaller area you could create more damage - thus edged weapons were invented. Putting a fighting man on a horse gave him more mass and speed behind his lance and a higher platform to swing a sword from.

Until men learned to harness chemical energy, all weapons used mechanics to amplify muscle energy. Bows and catapults use the tension stored in flexible materials, and devices like trebuchets use the potential energy of heavy weights to store and release kinetic energy rapidly. Conventional weapons in whatever configuration, are designed with a tradeoff between mass and speed. Large mass/slow speed, for maces axes etc, smaller mass/high speed for slingstones, arrows, bullets, shrapnel, etc.

So what has this entertaining digression got to do with terrorism?

Just this, the progress of science and technology has immeasurably improved and enriched the quality of our lives, not to mention lengthening them. But it has also provided everyone with the means of aquiring or making more and more powerful weapons. Just consider what a deadly weapon your car is when in the control of someone who doesn't care about his own life.

This has had some favorable consequences. Firearms are probably the single most important factor in the spread of that institution we call liberal democracy. When the dominant weapon system is cheap enough for common folks to acquire and doesn't require a lifetime of practice to learn to use effectively, warrior aristocracies go the way of the dinosaurs.

The samurai in 16th century Japan realized this right away, and succeeded in isolating their nation and halting development of firearms for two-and-a-half centuries. The end result was that a single US naval flotilla was able to sail into Edo Bay and dictate terms to a nation many times more populous. They found the Japanese shore batteries were "Quaker cannon" (painted wood) and the samurai were still using matchlocks.

The downside of this is that ever-greater destructive power is devolving to ever-smaller groups, even to the level of the disaffected individual. Advancing technology is only going to increase this problem, as far as we can foresee.

In other words, terrorism is a problem we are going to have to live with, most probably forever.

Some speculations for the purpose of illustrating this point:

Suitcase nuclear weapons are something we've imagined for a while, and I'm nearly 100% certain that it's something we're going to have to deal with eventually. But it doesn't (yet) meet the category of cheapness and ease of acquisition outlined in the earlier posts.

But did you ever hear of fuel-air explosives? If not, go here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fuel-air_explosive

A fuel-air explosion is what happens when any flammable liquid is vaporized into a cloud and set alight. Or even when a cloud of dust is ignited, as in a grain-elevator explosion. It's why a gasoline container with only a bit of fuel and a lot of empty volume is so dangerous. The rule of thumb I remember is, one cup of gas vaporized = four sticks of dynamite.

We all know about car bombs. Load a few hundred pounds of explosive into a car and drive it somewhere you want to blow up. Now how about a device the size of a flashlight that you could put into the gas tank of any car that would expel the contents of the tank into a cloud of droplets and ignite it? A lot easier to smuggle across borders and checkpoints than a ton of explosive wouldn't you say? Probably cheaper too, once you got it into production.

Well, perhaps someday we'll be driving electric cars. That waits on the development of capacitors that can store large amounts of energy, recharge quickly and discharge it rapidly. Some say that day is a long time coming, though there is one company that say's it'll have a commercially viable product on the market quite soon. That'll solve that problem, right?

Ever hear of a rail gun? See here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rail_gun and if you're still curious you can follow the links to coil gun and mass driver. Basically they are all devices to accelerate projectiles to incredibly high speeds with electro-magnetism rather than chemical explosions. The military is interested in them, but the problem is the power source. Solve that and a five-inch naval gun's range is increased from 15 miles, to 200 miles.

So, after we get the car batteries that will make our big city air breathable again, what are we going to do when it becomes possible to make a gun that'll shoot a projectile to the horizon, through any building that's in its way, out of parts you can get in a hardware store and your car battery?*

These examples are intended as illustrations, which may or may not prove feasible. But I'm sure we could think of a host of possibilities on any beer-fueled evening with a gang of technologically literate buds. It would be strange if none of them panned out.

A comment to part 2 maintained that it is irresponsible to discuss these things in a public forum. With respect, I beg to differ. It is irresponsible not to discuss these things while they are still only possibilities, and it is both irresponsible and foolish to leave the planning for these eventualities to groups of official experts - there are no experts on this problem. This is a societal problem that requires more brainpower than even a government can muster, and more imagination than governments ordinarily possess.

Remember United 93? The civilians on board had to overrule all official doctrine on what to do during a hijacking. They won immortal glory that we will remember with grief and pride as long as our nation lives. But what if there had been just a little thought devoted to the previously unimaginable possibility of a suicide-hijacking? Maybe we'd still have them around to enjoy their bragging rights.

If we want to be around to brag to our grandchildren about how we saved civilization, we'd better start thinking about how to meet threats to it now.

*Robert Heinlien first wrote about the use of mass drivers as a weapon in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress about forty years ago.


  • At 8:16 PM, Blogger Doug_S said…

    I am not going to set it out here, but little thought leads to much more horrific and safer (for the terriorist) activities.

    9/11 was intended to makea big bang as if they had the ability to project power deep into our territory. They do not. Simple horror is available to all and sundry and while it may not or may forward political goals depending upon how the MSM plays it, it is easy to destroy and maim.

  • At 3:46 PM, Blogger metapundit.net said…

    Do you think as technology gets more powerful that we'll see asymmetrical warfare the other way? It wouldn't suprise me to know that somebody in the west (and here we go with the movie plots again) is right now sponsoring terrorism against the Jihadists - funneling money to rivals, paying for mercenaries, whatever.

    Flash forward 10 years worth of technology and perhaps a successful jihadi attack or two (say a chemical or dirty bomb attack in a US city) and I would suspect more people will have both the motivation and the means to wage asymmetrical non-nation/state warfare themselves. What if Carmack's rocketry experiments are actually a front to develop ICBM capabilities and wipe out Mecca?

    Especially with developments in more unusual technologies it doesn't seem that farfetched that a vengeful technologist might use Iraq as a testing ground for semi-autonomous miniaturized weapons platforms of some kind. The possibilities are endless - can you see a solar powered outer atmosphere balloon used as an semi orbiting weapons platform - sniping away at extremist clerics? Capabilities that previously required national or corporate budgets will devolve down to the individual...

    Arguing this scenario is the lack of old fashioned private violence emanating from the west. I've long been surprised, for instance, that all the hand wringing over slow moving genocide in the Sudan hasn't resulted in at least one mercenary brigade (either volunteer or volunteer funded). Even an extremely small force (if highly competent and highly funded) could put a great deal of fear into the Janjanweed (it seems to me)...


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