EU: Multi-million euro research project aims to stop "non-cooperative vehicles" with microwaves and electromagnetic pulses

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The EU is contributing over €3.3 million to a project which aims to give European security forces a way to ensure the "safe control and stopping at a distance of non-cooperative vehicles" on land and at sea through devices that make use of high power microwaves and electromagnetic pulses.

The SAVELEC project (Safe control of non-cooperative vehicles through electromagnetic means) began in January 2012 and is costing a total of €4,253,992, with the EU providing €3,321,748 through funding from the security component of the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7).

It involves companies, universities and research institutes from France, Germany, Greece, Spain and Sweden and is led by Valencia's Institute of Technological and Information Applications and Advanced Communications (Instituto de Aplicaciones de las Tecnologias de la Information y de las Comunicaciones Avanzadas).

According to the SAVELEC website, non-cooperative vehicles are a "well-defined problem in the scope of police/security/border guards and forces." The solution proposed by the project "is based on the use of electromagnetic means, electromagnetic pulses (EMP) and high power microwaves (HPM), in order to disrupt the proper behaviour of the electronic components inside the vehicle." [1]

Military origins

Such devices have until recent years primarily been of interest to military forces. A 2005 paper by Nick Lewer and Neil Davison for Disarmament Forum examined the potential for the use of "non-lethal" technologies in warfare and noted that "concern has been expressed over their potential for destruction of civilian electronic infrastructure - including hospital equipment and heart pacemakers - that would be in contravention of international humanitarian law" which is based on the principles of distinction (between the civilian population and between civilian objects and military objectives), proportionality and necessity.

Delivered as a "bomb/missile, fixed or portable device," Lewer and Davison said that "HPM weapons have not been described by the military as 'non-lethal' and can be seen as an extension of lethal force." [2]

A paper from 2010 quotes the NATO Research and Technology Organisation as saying that in the context of warfare "the use of a high power microwave system to disrupt enemy communications within a city that could also impact a hospital in the vicinity of the military objective could be indiscriminate." This could breach international humanitarian law. [3]

In October last year, Wired magazine reported that the arms firm Boeing "successfully tested a non-lethal, microwave-blasting missile that knocks out electronics." Keith Coleman, program manager for the Counter-electronics High-powered Advanced Missile (CHAMP) programme, said: "Today we made science fiction fact."

"We took out everything, it was fantastic," Coleman said, adding that "in the near future, this technology may be used to render an enemy's electronic and data systems useless even before the first troops or aircraft arrive." [4]

The SAVELEC project suggests that interest in such devices amongst internal security and law enforcement authorities is increasing. The website lists its "end users" as Spain's Guardia Civil, the Sachsen-Anhalt Landeskriminalamt in Germany, and the Greek Centre for Security Studies. France has two interested parties: the Intervention Group of the National Gendarmerie (Groupe d'Intervention de la Gendarmerie Nationale) and the joint police-gendarmerie venture, the Department of Technology and Information Systems for Internal Security (Service des technologies et des systèmes d'information de la securite intérieure). [5]

One overview of the project says that "the involvement of security forces as end-users in the project is a key factor as regards the necessity of having realistic information about the use-cases, and scenarios." [6]

Legal frameworks and ethical standards

While international humanitarian law applies to armed conflicts, concerns over the potential risks of HPM and EMP devices will have to be assessed with regard to different legal frameworks.

One objective of the SAVELEC project, alongside scientific research and field tests, is to examine "the consequences of human exposure to the signals chosen…in the context of European legislation in order to ensure safety of persons inside the vehicle and in the environment as well as of the user of the technology." [7]

The SAVELEC project has an Independent Ethics Advisory Board responsible for undertaking this work. Dr Elin Palm, an Assistant Professor at Sweden's Linköping University and data protection and privacy expert for the ethics board, said that the board will "assess the implications of the research within SAVELEC [and] monitor all activities for compliance with EU ethical standards."

As well as examining whether the project complies with formal legal standards, the board will also "address ethical issues that may not be codified but still urgent to deal with in the project," Palm told Statewatch.

"There is no pre-established set of ethical standards," she continued. "Rather each specialist should ensure that the relevant ethical codes and standards within his or her field of expertise are complied with." Members of the SAVELEC Independent Ethics Advisory Board responsible for assessing compliance with health legislation and medical ethics could not be reached for comment.

Dr Steve Wright, a senior lecturer in applied global ethics at Leeds Metropolitan University, told Statewatch that high power microwave and electromagnetic pulse weapons are "blunderbuss technologies."

Being able to properly target the non-cooperative vehicles with which the project is concerned is vital, he said: "the issue of directionality in a civilian context [is] paramount," as there is significant risk of 'collateral damage'.

What next?

Questions remain over whether the problem of non-cooperative vehicles is widespread and serious enough across Europe to warrant the investment of millions of euros in the SAVELEC project, which may be seen as a solution looking for a problem.

Concerns may also be raised over the potential for 'function creep': while any functioning technology produced by the project may initially be used to halt non-cooperative vehicles, it would require strict regulation to prevent it from subsequently being used for other purposes.

The Independent Ethics Advisory Board will issue three reports with the last one due in April 2015. A final "exploitation plan" will also be produced at this time.

[1] SAVELEC, High Level Objectives and Project Overview
[2] Nick Lewer and Neil Davison, Non-lethal technologies - an overview, Disarmament Forum, 2005
[3] Stuart Casey-Maslen, Non-kinetic-energy weapons termed 'non-lethal' - A Preliminary Assessment under International Humanitarian Law and International Human Rights Law, October 2010
[4] Liat Clark, Non-lethal microwave-blasting missile knocks out electronics, Wired, 24 October 2012
[5] SAVELEC, Consortium
[6] CORDIS, Safe control of non cooperative vehicles through electromagnetic means
[7] SAVELEC, Project Overview

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