Countering an EMP Attack

Date: 18 Sep 2008


Countering an EMP Attack

Iran’s drive to acquire deliverable nuclear weaponry is a threat not only to Israel, it’s a threat to us. As we reported in a story to you several weeks ago, the threat of a nuclear weapon being used by Iran to create an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack is very real and could have a devastating impact on our economy and national security. The commentary below discusses efforts to counter the threat of an EMP attack. 

The next President is going to have to face the Iranian nuclear threat head-on, as it now becomes increasingly apparent that Iran will acquire nuclear weaponry within the next five years. 

Were a successful EMP attack launched against the United States, it is likely that we would look back on today’s economy with longing. Disruptions to our communications and energy infrastructure caused by an EMP attack could be mammoth, with a corresponding collapse of our economy and significant compromising of our national security infrastructure. 

ACT! for America does not endorse candidates, but as we Americans choose our next President it is incumbent on us to answer this question: 

Between Barack Obama and John McCain, who has the best combination of experience, knowledge of foreign policy, and proven fortitude to make the excruciatingly difficult decisions that will have to be made if Iran cannot be “persuaded” to halt its nuclear weapons program? 

For as much as we should be doing everything possible to protect ourselves against an EMP attack should it happen, the best protection is to prevent a nuclear-delivered EMP attack from ever occurring in the first place. And that means not allowing Iran to acquire nuclear weaponry. 

The Pentagon is studying ways of countering the threat of an electromagnetic pulse attack. 

By Patrick Chisholm 

Amid increasing reliance on computer networks and other electronic technology and the rise of new and technologically sophisticated potential adversaries, military officials are taking a renewed look at ways of countering the threat of an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack. 

During the Cold War, the possibility of an EMP attack was a prominent concern for U.S. defense planners. In such an attack scenario, a nuclear bomb is exploded miles—typically hundreds of miles—above the target area. The explosion generates an EMP that disrupts or destroys electronic devices everywhere in the target area, which could include an area as large as the continental United States. 

With the downfall of the Soviet Union, the threat of EMP from that part of the world has greatly receded. However, since the end of the Cold War, new EMP vulnerabilities have emerged, the most obvious of which is terrorism. As a 2004 report by a panel of experts warned, terrorists or other adversaries could launch an EMP attack without having a high level of sophistication, such as through a short-range Scud missile. Also of concern are non-nuclear, small-scale E-bombs that target localized areas. (See MIT, Volume 8, Issue 8, page 8.) 

The EMP generated from nuclear and E-bombs could pass through protective cages that shield electronics and critical infrastructure against lightning and other electromagnetic interference (EMI). And a byproduct of EMPs is said to be huge magnetic fields that collapse, generating a massive power surge that would render many electronic devices inoperable. 

Newly nuclear-armed nations pose another EMP threat. If countries such as Iran and North Korea do not already have nuclear weapons and E-bombs, they could be well on their way to acquiring them, analysts say. Iran has conducted flight tests of its Shahab III medium-range missile. The missiles reportedly were deliberately exploded at high altitude, and were deemed by the Iranian government as successful tests. One interpretation points to the possibility of plans for EMP. 

A second major development since the end of the Cold War is the U.S. military’s widespread use of and dependency on computers and other electronics for weapons systems, command and control systems, and business process systems. The push toward network-centric warfare—from command centers stateside down to soldiers in the field—means that dependency on electronics will only intensify. 

Military Standard

These new vulnerabilities to EMP raise the question of how well the Department of Defense is prepared for such an attack. The answer, observers say, is mixed and difficult to discern, because information regarding which U.S. military systems are hardened against EMP is classified. However, clues suggest that more resources could be devoted to EMP hardening than is currently the case. For example, many EMP testing facilities have been closed since the end of the Cold War, according to William A. Radasky, president of Metatech Corp. and an expert on protecting electronics from EMP. 

In addition, the Construction Engineering Research Laboratory of the Army Corps of Engineers used to investigate materials and processes for EMP shielding applications. But, according to a spokesman, “All the money for that research dried up after the Berlin Wall came down.” 

Literature warning about the dangers of EMP conveys the impression that an EMP would ruin every electronic device in the target area. It is less frequently pointed out, however, that most electronic components enjoy some built-in protection from electromagnetic interference, albeit not necessarily from EMP. Government standards require such protection. 

To be sure, commercial EMI standards are probably too weak to protect against an EMP. But military standards are much stronger than commercial standards because of the more hazardous environments that military electronics are exposed to. Along with protecting against the various electromagnetic interferences that one encounters on the battlefield, some—but by no means all—military EMI standards are designed to withstand EMP as well. The most common EMI standard is Military Standard 461 (MIL-STD-461). 

For military electronics, “We are typically trying to protect nearby radio communications or navigation receivers from being jammed by our equipment…. We are [also] trying to protect our own sensitive circuits against the fields from nearby radio or radar transmitters. “Shielding may also be needed for other threats, such as lightning or nuclear EMP,” according to Daryl Gerke and William Kimmel, principals at Kimmel Gerke Associates, an EMC consulting and training firm, writing in Interference Technology magazine. 

They continued, “Military equipment may be subjected to very high levels of RF energy (radar and radio transmitters), lightning and nuclear EMP effects. MIL-STD-461E, the key military EMC specification, addresses these multiple environments through a matrix of recommended requirements. For example, an electronic device used in a submarine will have different requirements than a device used in a helicopter.” 

A vulnerability arises, however, with the military’s increasing use of COTS devices in warfighting, C4I and business process systems. The key is to ensure either that those COTS items have been modified to comply with military EMI standards, or that, once those COTS items are acquired, they are housed in rooms or buildings that protect against EMP and other EMI. 

EMI Shielding

If electronics are not designed correctly or shielded properly, they can jam reception of television, radio and other telecommunications. Therefore, as mentioned above, electronic gear cannot be sold without having to meet some sort of regulations controlling the electromagnetic noise coming out of the device. In the U.S., the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) sets the regulations. Europe has even stronger regulations. 

EMI shielding is designed to both keep electromagnetic radiation from escaping from the device, and from getting into it. “Most of the regulations are aimed at keeping whatever noise that the box generates, by virtue of its operation, from getting out and affecting somebody else’s box or licensed radio or TV,” said Joe Butler, new business development manager at Chomerics, which manufactures EMI shielding materials. “However, given that there are all types of sources of electromagnetic radiation in the air, if you want your box to operate properly, you have to build it so that it’s protected from noise getting into it. So the shielding works both ways.” 

In EMI parlance, an electronic box may be anything from a cell phone housing, a laptop housing, a PC housing, or even housing for a large server rack. 

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