We’re Still Worrying About EMPs

EMPs!!! You know, the big electronics-frying pulses that accompany nuclear blasts. We’re back to worrying about them again. In particular how does the military protect its electrical infrastructure from an EMP attack.

“Yeah, we have issues there [with the EMP threat] and we have to look at those and we seriously have to understand that in the Army in particular, because we have an awful lot of bases that we look at,” said Marilyn Freeman assistant secretary of the Army for research and technology during a House Armed Services emerging threats subcomittee hearing today. “I work very closely and the folks in my office and accross the laboratory system of the Army work very close with the installations folks as we assess what our vulnerabilities are to power and energy issues and one of the things we’re trying to do is actually set up the ability for our various bases to be more energy self sufficient, more energy secure and to have the ability, not only to be more efficient and effective, but also to be safe and not vulnerable” to attacks from EMPs that would shut down a bases power systems.

If you think it’s easy to harden a base connected to the civilian power grid from an EMP blast, think again, one of Freeman’s fellow Pentagon science officials said in when a lawmaker asked how soon the nation can protect its bases and power infrastructure from EMP attack.

“I don’t think any of us are prepared today to give you a calendar date as to when that’s going to occur,” said Zachary Lemnios, assistant secretary of defense for research and engineering. “I will simply tell you that I’ve looked at risk assessments, not only in that domain but others, there are very few silver bullets that allow you to take the risk from a very high level to a low level.”

Instead, the Pentagon must look at how each installation and the overall grid will be attacked and how to defend against these attacks.

On a side note, the Air Force a few years ago, in a move that seemed to almost be catering to the nuclear power industry, was interested in installing “small package” nuclear power plants on its bases as a way of moving the installations off the antiquated national energy grid. Service officials said this would help protect the bases from attacks or disasters that could take down the energy grids. Needless to say, that plan died quietly along with the service’s plan to use coal-derived synthetic fuel to power its aircraft and ground vehicles.

What’s that E-4B flying command post have to do with EMPs you ask? The picture shows one of the jets sitting beneath a device that simulates an EMP during a test designed to make sure the jet’s electronics can survive a massive such an event.


  • Black Owl

    It’s good that we’re still worried about EMPs. They still have the potential to be powerful weapons.

    • Cthel

      In fact, the move to newer more efficient grid hardware actually increases vulnerability to EMP; the higher efficiency systems operate nearer maximum capacity, so are easier to overload.

      It’s rather like the way valve-based radar systems are so much more resistant to EMP than transistorised equipment. Valves operate on voltages measured in volts, transistors in millivolts – if an EMP generates a “spike” of say 0.5V. it’s pretty easy to see why the hardness differs.

    • Ara

      Sounds like Gingrich! with more logic though!

    • Jeff

      I agree. EMP’s are a real threat because they only requires one significant technology, that of super capacitors. Once you have that, its just all about exploding the capcitor as quickly as possible.

    • DCNY

      Power in terms of damage – but from what I understand they have a very limited range. I’m assuming the aggressor would target military installations first, and depending on the number of ICBM’s and/or bombs, they could be a little more or less liberal with their drop targets.

  • Guest

    COTS electronics operates in micro volts, micro watts……

    So, let’s put lots more COTS systems everywhere in the military !!

    You can now understand how the US got so surprized at Pearl Harbor in 1941.

    We are sooooooooo short sighted, as a country.

    • EW3

      Doing MILSPEC down to component level would drive the cost of things through the roof.

      Better to encase modules or boxes made up of COTS components in EMP proof shields. Will also need to isolate signal lines to these encased units, but if we move to glass fiber we’d save a bundle. Glass fiber is impervious to EMP as it does not rely on conductors.

    • AlC

      If you go to MILSPEC at the component level, we couldn’t build any systems, we could not afford it.

      Best to put COTS devices in a shielded box (faraday shield) with fiber optic interfaces which aren’t effected by EMP.

  • ADR

    I remember reading something a long time ago on TEMPEST shielding to protect against EMPs…?

  • mpower6428

    there is a disturbence in the force…. im sensing a price hike in consumer electronics.

  • blight_

    Off topic, but what facility is this?

    Looks like underground facility of some kind…

  • terry stanton

    could a huge coronal mass ejection (CME) , as we appoach the sunspot max , pose the same risk as a high airburst EMP?

  • Ems

    good to worry about this..short-range microwave weapons, like the cruise missile one the US is working on,are much cheaper and politically safer/likelyer to be deployed than an actual nuclear based emp…and we can expect the Russians and maybe Chinese to have similar programs underway, ..you’d not want a weather balloon or low flying uav, with some high-tech gear, to be able cripple a carrier’s electronics…another advantage of ‘designer emp’ weapons, is that the wavelength can be tuned to better resonate with the intended target (ie. antenna element on Aegis SPY radar.. etc.) so even though they are substantially weaker than a real emp, they could be made very effective if they can be delivered close in

  • Bob

    The E4 (which by the way I hope they don’t retire) has new tech and also redundant back-up “old tech” (basically vacuum tube tech) which is not nearly as vulnerable to EMP’s.

  • McPosterdoor

    One thought against an EMP attack on the U.S. would be how much telecommunication traffic channels through the U.S. Any broad EMP attack on the U.S. would cripple their (unless its North Korea, which doesn’t have telecommunication traffic ;)) international commercial networks, hurting themselves in the process as well as countless other Eurasian/Latina American/African/Middle East countries. They’d have to be DAMN sure its worth it (and it prob isn’t for any enemy capable of this). Not to mention the retaliatory strikes.

  • Jacob

    If our military doesn’t have an EMP weapon yet, what the hell are the odds that any other country might have one?

  • Dennis

    I’ve been investigating this subject for many years and I find several of the above statements not just misinformed, but indeed, clueless. Shielding has been used to reduce EMI (Electro-Magnetic Interference) since the early days of radio and became even more important once TV was found to be susceptible to localized RF signals. EMI abatement measures are a central part of FCC device certification. I have copies of the manuals for EMP protection of equipment and facilities and TEMPEST is in the same manual. The first is to keep strong fields from entering to damage equipment and TEMPEST deals with shielding to prevent weaker signals from escaping a facility and providing a route for electronic intercepts. Coronal Mass Ejections and the Van Allen Belt? Dr James Van Allen was faculty here at the U of Iowa and I was privileged to get to know him personally when he was a patient in my ICU for a few weeks before his passing. He was a true gentleman in every sense of the word. A CME would impact the magnetic lines of force of Earth’s magnetosphere which are the same lines of force that shield the planet from other radiation forms which in turn compose the belts. An electromagnetic field and radiation impacting the magnetosphere create a strong EM field in a manner similar to a magnet and a coil creating an alternator/generator and project it downward where it couples with ANY conductor to generate electrical forces. If a sufficiently powerful field or a long enough conductor come into play, the levels of voltage (electrical differential) and current (energy flow) can become huge. Tubes/valves have operating voltages and currents far greater than solid state devices which is why you can have a calculator in a watch that doesn’t require a bank of diesel generators to power. Solid state devices due to their low power operation charachteristics are far more susceptible to breakdown at the junctions that make them “semiconductors” and are in the range of milli/micro volts and microamps. Supercapacitors can store huge amounts of power and are equally capable of rapid discharge which allows huge voltage and current peaks that if tuned correctly CAN be tweaked for specific frequency ranges and targeted services/devices. There are also explosively formed capacitors/generation devices that can be used for small area effects and tactically employed. Nuclear EMP can cover a general area or used strategically in a high altitude burst to blanket entire continents. With todays dependence on electronics in most control and comm applications the effects can be life changing. The Mig 25 was scoffed at as primitive when the radar was found to be tube based. Then the evaluators realized that made it EMP resistant in light of it’s role as a strategic bomber interceptor. On the unrelated underground complex: If you look on several map sources and do a little google search you’ll find both that complex and the even larger one to the east are clearly labeled as Central Ammunition Depot at Karala Pakistan. Looks like the Rock Island arsenal and the bunkers are old style munition storage bunkers. Hope this helps to clarify a few points.

  • Wulf

    Another reason to encourage more fiber Internet. >.>

  • mark

    what about engine components in tanks?