Million-rand 'death ray' research begins

By Leon Engelbrecht, ITWeb senior writer
Johannesburg, 01 Feb 2008

The state arms agency, Armscor, is funding the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), to the tune of R1 456 400, to investigate radio frequency (RF) weapons.

RF weapons are often described as "non-lethal" or "less-than-lethal" armaments and can be used to control people or destroy materiel. Some countries have developed RF weapons for riot control, or to deny access to critical and secret facilities. Others see RF weapons as a way to attack ICT.

Wikipedia notes that high-intensity RF weapons "operate similarly to electromagnetic pulse (EMP) devices, by inducing destructive voltage within electronic wiring".

US officials have for years feared that terrorists, foreign or domestic, and criminals might seize upon such weapons and use them against data centres, or critical infrastructure, such as control centres for air traffic or the power grid.

Tests conducted by the US military and evidence presented in Congress show the knowledgeable and disgruntled can build such weapons from parts easily obtainable in an electronics store.

According to the researchers, just about any electronic device is vulnerable to such weapons - if not adequately shielded. Most civilian infrastructure is not protected from EMP or RF weapons, leaving notebooks, PCs, servers and any other unshielded device containing printed circuit boards vulnerable to blackmailers or anyone else with a grudge or profit motive.

Neither Armscor nor the CSIR were willing to comment on contract EPMS/2007/322, which is classified "confidential".

CSIR media and publishing manager Hilda van Rooyen says as "a rule, when the CSIR is contracted to undertake research for a client, it is up to the client to decide whether they want to disclose details".

Armscor spokesman Bertus Cilliers adds he too cannot comment as the project is classified.

However, it is likely the project is defensive and that the CSIR has been contracted to explore the threat RF weapons pose to SA and to develop countermeasures.

Other secret projects

The RF project is one of a number of secret and otherwise confidential defence contracts. Among these is a R11 086 708 contract awarded to Grintek Ewation, in September 2006, to retain and develop the SA National Defence Force's strategic communications intelligence (eavesdropping) and communications jamming capability. The contract, classified "secret", is considered an "ongoing task".

Confidential contracts currently in progress include an essential electronic intelligence technologies retention and development project, worth R3 808 289, assigned to Sysdel, and a R10 696 780 advanced laser research project at the CSIR's National Laser Centre.

Saab Avitronics has a R710 694 deal to research the viability of RF missile approach warning system technology, while Denel Aerospace has two deals, worth about R18 million, to research local active protection system technology.

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