The growing threat of the EMP
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Will electromagnetic pulses ever be used as weapons of mass destruction?
Electromagnetic pulses (EMPs) and other forms of electromagnetic energy weaponry and warfare loom large in Hollywood films – everything from ‘Broken Arrow’ and ‘The Matrix’ to Pixar’s ‘Cars 2’ and ‘Red Dawn’ are examples. The fact that former US President Donald Trump issued an ‘Executive Order on Coordinating National Resilience to Electromagnetic Pulses,’ as recently as March 2019, says much about the severity of the actual threat EMPs present to countries that are increasingly dependent on computers and electronic communications for most aspects of their military and commercial operations.
The best stories have some element of truth and the James Bond movie ‘Goldeneye’ features what would be called a high-altitude electromagnetic pulse (HEMP), which has its basis very much in reality.
A similar effect was caused when the US detonated a 1.4-megaton nuclear warhead more than 240 miles (400km) above the Pacific Ocean in 1962 – an explosion in space sufficient to cause an EMP that hit electricity supplies in Hawaii over 850 miles away as well as destroying at least three low Earth orbit satellites.
The significance of that incident lies in the fact that the world’s critical national infrastructure in the 1960s was much less vulnerable to disruption by EMP than it is today due to the fractional number of electronic transistors in use at the time. In other words, the digitisation of our lives where everything is controlled by microchip has vastly increased the associated weakness to EMPs.
That has led former CIA director Jim Woolsey to vocalise his fears that North Korea could detonate a nuclear device in the atmosphere to disable the US electricity grid – though it is possible his links to venture capitalist firms backing defence and cyber-security companies targeting the energy industry, may have coloured his line of argument.
Deployment of the electromagnetic spectrum, particularly radio waves at specific frequencies, to gather intelligence and disrupt enemy communications while protecting your own has been well understood for almost a century but has intensified with the use of remote-controlled electronic weapon systems and devices.
By contrast, the existence and use of electromagnetic bombs (e-bombs) appears veiled in secrecy. An e-bomb (or electromagnetic pulse device) is a weapon deliberately designed to take out, rather than disrupt, electricity supplies by destroying any machine that uses it. It works by creating a huge surge in the magnetic field that provides low-intensity radio transmissions, which are pushed into almost any electrically conductive object, including telephone and power cables and anything hooked up to them, as well as batteries and transformers.
There is speculation that wealthier nations already have e-bombs that use high-power microwave devices to the same effect over a smaller, more concentrated geographical footprint.
The effects could be seismic though not necessarily lethal to people. An e-bomb could neutralise vehicle control and weapon-targeting systems, as well as communications, navigations, and sensor apparatus. They also have the benefit of being able to pass electromagnetic pulses through any material that conducts electricity, such as the soil, to reach underground bunkers that conventional explosives may not damage.
Any army or defence system which relies heavily on mechanised transport with large volumes of electric components as well as electronic navigation and communications is therefore highly vulnerable to disruption by an e-bomb – which is one reason for Trump’s executive order.
For the moment, e-bombs are perceived as a danger only to electronic and electrical equipment, but deadlier weapons with a more direct impact on humans could be on the horizon. The contemporary re-imagining of HG Wells’s ‘The War of the Worlds’ produced by Canal+ in 2019 provides a graphic illustration of what might happen. Aliens simultaneously wipe out much of humanity with a massive EMP that doesn’t just kill CNI, connected devices and anything with a battery, but also fries the brains of most people not sufficiently far underground to escape its effects.
That sort of threat is not total science-fiction fantasy. Some studies have found that brain tissue in rats is sensitive to EMP, which can cause damage to central nervous systems. A strong enough EMP would also impact the cognitive strength of the left side of the human brain through sustained neural damage, though the pulse would have to be considerably more powerful than the estimated 100kV/m that human bodies can currently withstand (the amount that would be given off by a small nuclear weapon detonated in the atmosphere) and the 200kV/m that has been tested on rats in several Chinese studies.
Magnetic and solar storms also play a part in global conflict, if only by erroneously convincing combatants that they are being attacked by their enemies – a sort of military false positive that keeps people trigger-happy. One incident occurred in 1972, at the height of the war between the US and North Vietnam, when solar flares generated a magnetic storm that detonated a large number of US Navy magnetic-influence sea mines in the coastal waters off North Vietnam.
A solar storm that jammed radar and communications in May 1967 also disrupted the US Ballistic Missile Early Warning System, built to detect incoming Soviet attacks, in the northern hemisphere. Had the Americans misidentified the storm as a deliberate attack by the Russians, it would have constituted an act of war with likely devastating consequences.
EMP weapons have the potential to cause terrible damage, but the simple truth is that they are as yet unproven and there are much worse threats to civilisation whose effects are already well known. Nuclear weapons, for example, are all too real and available in ready supply, while there are also adversaries who would scoff at the idea of launching a physical attack on anything.
The real and present danger may ultimately come from cyber‑security hackers, who could achieve the same level of disruption caused by an EMP at a fraction of the expense from the comfort of their own bedrooms by breaking into military and commercial communications systems, CNI command and operational platforms to either take control, scramble, or simply turn them off to invoke national pandemonium.
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