For years now ever since the success of the Trojan Horse at Troy military strategists have puzzled over the concept of a weapon that wins wars, yet does little collateral damage and minimises the death and injury of humans.
In fact technology that would allow a military or terrorist strike along those lines already exists, although fortunately some of the finer problems involved in its application still need solving. What is it and where did it come from?
Back in 1962, when America first exploded a nuclear bomb 30km up in the atmosphere, the gamma rays caused by the explosion triggered an electromagnetic pulse that disrupted radio stations 1,200km away. Although the pulse lasted for only a fraction of a second, it was enough to germinate the idea that electromagnetic pulses (EMP) were a reality.
But you don't need a nuclear explosion to generate an EMP. A study commissioned by the Australian Air Force concluded that the most likely way of creating high-powered microwaves (HPMs) that could be used as a weapon is via a device known as a vircator.
These work by storing electricity into a coil of wires wrapped around an explosive and then discharging it. The flowing electricity creates a magnetic field, which is then compressed as the explosion occurs. This causes a low-frequency EMP that accelerates electrons to high energies.Such a burst could yield enough energy to disrupt computer chips and a plethora of electronic equipment that is the lifeblood of many warfare systems. But it doesn't end there. Financial centres would be paralysed, medical systems would fail, aviation and other transport control systems would be thrown into chaos; the list is a long one. For many countries, the effect would be a commercial and social disaster – always a juicy incentive for terrorist organisations.
The military men and their governments are of course aware of this and are already working on methods to protect commercial systems in similar ways to how military electronic equipment is radiation-hardened or shielded. An early technology that relates to this modern threat is the shielding used on commercial aircraft to protect them from lightening strikes.
But the military's real interest in EMPs is an offensive one. How can they use them in the theatre of war? There is, however, an obstacle blocking this ambition that the military minds call fratricide or, as most of us would say, a 'shoot yourself in the foot' problem. Because HPMs have such short wavelengths, they can penetrate the smallest gaps in any defence system. The difficulty here is that as well as infiltrating and disabling the enemy's computer and electronics systems, it could easily do the same to your own: a pacifist's utopian dream.
Sadly though, their dreams of a battlefield stalemate will be short lived as the military are already working on an idea to protect their sensitive electronics-based systems. The theory is to create antennas that will shunt incoming energy away and direct it to ground. I suspect it won't escape the attention of the strategists that if you can direct EMP energy to ground what stops you from directing it straight back to the enemy trying to use it against you?
They in turn of course may have developed similar antennas to send it straight back and the whole thing becomes a deadly game of battleground ping-pong that is only won or lost with the inevitable intervention of human error, or that fratricide thing again.
No doubt about it, the big hollow horse was a much easier concept to implement.