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The Growing Threat of the EMP

Will electromagnetic pulses ever be used as weapons of mass destruction?

Electromagnetic pulses (EMPs) and other forms of electromagnetic energy weapons and warfare are looming in Hollywood movies — 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” in March 2019 says a lot about the seriousness of the real threat that EMPs pose to countries increasingly dependent on computers and electronic communications for most aspects of their military and commercial operations.

The best stories contain a grain of truth and the James Bond movie ‘Goldeneye’ contains what would be called a High Altitude Electromagnetic Pulse (HEMP), which has its basis largely in reality.

A similar effect was caused when the US detonated a 1.4 megaton warhead more than 400 miles (400 km) above the Pacific Ocean in 1962 — an explosion in space sufficient to cause an EMP that also the electricity supply in Hawaii more than 850 miles away as it destroyed at least three satellites in low Earth orbit.

The significance of that incident lies in the fact that the world’s critical national infrastructure in the 1960s was much less vulnerable to EMP disruption than it is today due to the fractional number of electronic transistors in use at the time.

In other words, the digitization of our lives, where everything is controlled by microchips, has greatly increased the associated weakness for EMPs. That has led former CIA director Jim Woolsey to voice his fears that North Korea could detonate a nuclear device in the atmosphere to knock out the U.S.

electrical grid — though its ties to venture capitalist firms that do defense and supporting cybersecurity firms targeting the energy industry may have colored his argument.

The use of the electromagnetic spectrum, especially radio waves at specific frequencies, to gather intelligence and disrupt enemy communications while protecting your own has been well understood for nearly a century, but has been intensified through the use of remote-controlled electronic weapon systems. and devices.

In contrast, the existence and use of electromagnetic bombs (e-bombs) seems shrouded in secrecy. An e-bomb (or electromagnetic pulse device) is a weapon deliberately designed to cut out rather than disrupt the electricity supply by destroying every machine it uses.

It works by creating a huge wave in the magnetic field that creates low-intensity radio transmissions, which are pushed into almost any electrically conductive object, including telephone and power cables and anything connected to them, as well as batteries and transformers.

There is speculation that wealthier countries already have e-bombs that use powerful microwave devices with the same effect on a smaller, more concentrated geographic footprint.

The effects can be seismic, but are not necessarily fatal to humans. An e-bomb can neutralize vehicle control and weapon targeting systems, as well as communications, navigation and sensor equipment.

They also have the advantage of being able to transmit electromagnetic pulses through any material that conducts electricity, such as the ground, to reach underground bunkers that are not allowed to damage conventional explosives.

Any military or defense system that relies heavily on mechanized transportation with large amounts of electrical components, as well as electronic navigation and communications, is therefore highly vulnerable to disruption from an e-bomb — which is grounds for Trump’s executive order.

At the moment, e-bombs are only seen as a danger to electronic and electrical equipment, but deadlier weapons with a more direct impact on people could be on the horizon.

The contemporary reinterpretation of HG Wells’ ‘The War of the Worlds’, produced by Canal+ in 2019, provides a graphic illustration of what could happen.

Aliens are simultaneously destroying much of humanity with a massive EMP that not only kills CNI, connected devices, and anything with a battery, but also fritters the brains of most people that aren’t far enough underground to handle its effects. to escape.

That kind of threat isn’t a total science fiction fantasy. Some studies have shown that brain tissue in rats is sensitive to EMP, which can cause damage to the central nervous system.

A strong enough EMP would also affect the cognitive power of the left side of the human brain through sustained neural damage, although the pulse would need to be significantly more powerful than the estimated 100 kV/m that human bodies can currently withstand (the amount that would given off by a small nuclear weapon detonated in the atmosphere) and the 200 kV/m tested on rats in several Chinese studies.

Magnetic storms and solar storms also play a role in global conflict, if only by falsely convincing combatants that they are being attacked by their enemies – a kind of military false positives that keep people hooked.

An incident occurred in 1972, at the height of the US-North Vietnam war, when solar flares created a magnetic storm that detonated a large number of US Navy magnetically influenced naval mines in the coastal waters of North Vietnam. .

A solar storm that blocked radar and communications in May 1967 also disrupted the U.S. 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 been an act of war with likely devastating consequences. EMP weapons have the potential to inflict terrible damage, but the simple truth is that they are unproven and there are far worse threats to civilization whose effects are already known.

Nuclear weapons, for example, are all too real and in stock, while there are also opponents who would scoff at the idea of ​​launching a physical attack on anything.

The real and current danger may eventually come from cybersecurity hackers, who can achieve the same level of disruption from an EMP at a fraction of the cost from the comfort of their own bedroom by breaking into military and commercial communications systems, CNI command and operational platforms to either take control, scramble, or just take them out to summon a national pandemonium.