November 8, 2021geopoliticsinformation warfare

The unlikeliness of a directed microwave weapon

I am not convinced that there is a directed electromagnetic energy weapon involved.

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The Havana syndrome, a mysterious illness that has affected US diplomats and intelligence officials in many parts of the world, has divided expert opinion. One group believes that it is the result of an attack using electromagnetic/sonic weapons by the Russians. Another group believes that it is a mass psychogenic illness. The US government has been secretive about it and reluctant to commit itself one way or the other. (Update: 2022-02-03 The US intelligence community has released a report that asserts that pulsed electromagnetic energy plausibly explains the core characteristics, although information gaps exist.”)

NYT covers both sides of the debate. Robert Baloh writes how the symptoms could indicate psychosomatic illness.

I am not convinced that there is a directed electromagnetic energy weapon at play. Now, in theory, microwave energy can certainly be directed at a target from a distance. In practice, it cannot be done in a manner as to avoid detection. Even if it is somehow employed, it cannot have an impact on the brain without damaging with the skin and other tissue. Finally, it’s pretty easy to protect people from electromagnetic radiation.

A 2012 in Scientific American explains the problems of high-energy microwave weapons.

A directed microwave weapon will be the size of a truck with a dish antenna sticking out of it. The power generator will be very noisy. It’s hard to hide such a weapon. You can make a smaller, lower-powered transmitter, but you’ll have to sneak it into the room. It’s hard to take such a thing into the fortified walls of a US embassy. You can’t escape the inverse square law. The power of a radio wave drops in proportion to the square of the distance. At a distance of 10 metres, its power is a hundredth of what it was at source. So a directed energy weapon, microwave or laser, requires massive amounts of power; this makes them more like field artillery, less like a rifle. You can use higher frequencies to pump more power. Unfortunately, the higher the frequency the lower the ability to penetrate physical barriers. (The February 2022 US intelligence report asserts that there are multiple pathways around these constraints, but doesn’t mention any. I am not surprised that it doesn’t.)

So, to use it against diplomats, those Russians have to sneak a big transmitter into a US embassy or compound, find a way to power it adequately, position it carefully, and then focus the beam on moving human targets. Oh, and they need to do all this without getting noticed. Ordinary mortals can’t even take a mobile phone into the embassy building.

Iain Boyd explains how microwaves can affect people. I think he somewhat overstates the case.

Now let’s say the Russians somehow manage to do this. The first sign that there’s a directed energy weapon aimed at you is that you’ll feel the heat. It is possible that less powerful waves can be pulsed or modulated to produce other effects (like the ones the US diplomats felt) but the most likely effect is still detectable by the skin. Since few Havana syndrome victims reported skin problems, the case for microwaves becomes weaker. Moreover, waves strong enough to mess around with electrical signals in the brain can easily be detected with non-specialist equipment of the kind available in engineering college laboratories. There are no reports of such detection.

Finally, it is very easy to shield against microwaves. Ordinary concrete walls block higher frequency radiation. A sheet of metal or even a metal foil can block microwaves. A wire-mesh enclosure (called a Faraday cage) is an effective shield. The defence against microwave weapons is stunningly simple and inexpensive!

Unfortunately, my hypothesis fits into the standard conspiracy theory template. But I think it is a less extraordinary claim than that of Russians using directed microwave weapons.

So a directed microwave weapon is very unlikely to be the cause here. If at all microwaves are involved (and something like the Frey effect is making people hear noises) then one possibility is a malfunctioning microwave transmitter inside the US embassy building. Unlike external weapons, leaky communications equipment will be in closer proximity to people in the embassy. I have not observed this possibility being discussed as much as that of Russians, West Indian crickets and mass psychogenic illnesses.

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