Fri, Aug 15, 2003 - Page 6 News List

US pioneers gamma-ray weapon


American military scientists are developing a weapon which kills high-energy gamma rays, it was claimed yesterday.

The bomb, which produces little fallout, blurs the distinction between conventional and nuclear weapons, and experts have already warned it could spark a new arms race. The science behind the gamma-ray bomb is still in its infancy, and technical problems mean it could be decades before the devices are developed. But the Pentagon is taking the project seriously.

The plans are getting under way at a time when the George W. Bush administration is seeking ways to expand its arsenal of unconventional weapons, and could well fuel charges that Washington risks triggering a new arms race.

In May, Congress approved further research on a new generation of tactical nuclear weapons: bunker busters, designed to drill into underground shelters, buried beneath hundreds of feet of concrete, and so-called mini-nukes with explosive yields of less than five kilotonnes.

Critics say such research projects risk igniting a new arms race. They also charge the administration with seeking to put in place the conditions to end a ban on nuclear testing.

According to New Scientist magazine, the gamma-ray bombs are already included in the US department of defense's militarily critical technologies list -- a wish list of possible weapons technology that America considers essential to maintaining its superior firepower.

They would not have the destructive power of nuclear weapons, but the energy emitted from a gamma-ray bomb would be thousands of times greater than from conventional chemical explosives.

"Such extraordinary energy density has the potential to revolutionize all aspects of warfare," the magazine quotes the defense department list as saying.

The device would not produce energy by triggering a nuclear fission or fusion reaction. Instead it would rely on the gamma rays produced when the high-energy nuclei of some radioactive elements decay.

Such weapons would allow military commanders to increase firepower without being forced to push the nuclear button. Experts have warned that if the US succeeds in building a gamma-ray bomb, it could force other countries to start nuclear programs or encourage those who already possess nuclear weapons to use them.

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