The US Department of Defense (DOD) wants to build an X-ray bomb which could knock out chemical and biological weapon sites without spreading hazardous material over a wide area, as is the risk with the explosives currently used.
Although high temperature incendiary warheads have been developed that should neutralise any chemical and
biological weapons hit, there is still a risk that a stray missile could instead damage a facility and cause it to leak.
To try to avoid this risk in the future, the DOD is working on using a strong burst of X-rays to render chemical and biological weapons useless, without damaging the vessels containing them, and has contracted specialist electronics company Hyperion Technology Group to develop a prototype. The device will fit inside an existing warhead casing, on a bomb or a missile.
Work on the project commenced in July 2018 and will run for two years.
How Does it Work?
The idea is that, at high enough exposure levels, X-rays destroy bacteria, spores and other biological agents. X-rays would also break down complex molecules like organophosphate nerve gases, such as sarin. However, a simple gas like chlorine would be unaffected.
What about Radiation Dose?
Research has found that doses of less than 13 Grays could activate bacterial spores like anthrax rather than killing them, so higher levels of radiation would be needed.
Around 10,000 Grays would be enough to destroy stored anthrax spores, in comparison, a normal chest CT scan is less than 0.01 Gray.
A dose of X-rays is measured in a unit called Grays.
What about Distance?
X-ray intensity decreases rapidly with distance, so the weapon would have to get very close to the target.
Anyone nearby would receive a fatal dose of radiation, causing failure of the cardiovascular and central nervous systems.
A Weapon of Terror!
It could be utilised against people to cause injuries and fatalities stemming from its radiation sickness effects.
Glendon Scott Crawford, a US Navy veteran and a member of the Ku Klux Klan, was convicted in 2016 of attempting to build an X-ray weapon to expose people to lethal doses of radiation from a truck (The Guardian, 2016).
What about International Law?
Under international law, a weapon is legal if it does not cause any unnecessary suffering. This means the use of an X-ray bomb would not necessarily be unlawful if it is the only way to achieve a lawful military objective.
The Guardian. (2016) White supremacist gets 30 years prison for his plot to kill Muslims and Obama. Available from World Wide Web: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/dec/19/death-ray-plot-muslims-obama-glendon-scott-crawford-new-york. [Accessed: 29 September, 2018].