Wednesday, January 2, 2013
An oldie but goodie has been showing up in movie plotlines and web articles over the last few months; electromagnetic pulse or EMP.
"EMP is the abrupt pulse of electromagnetic radiation usually results from certain types of high-energy explosions, especially a nuclear explosion, or from a suddenly fluctuating magnetic field. The resulting rapidly changing electric fields and magnetic fields may couple with electrical/electronic systems to produce damaging current and voltage surges."
Back when I got paid to worry about what the Soviet military might do, EMP was our favorite attack to worry about. Unlike say a full out nuclear strike, a single nuclear device could be detonated at altitude and in theory wipeout all of the solid-state circuit based technology of the 80s and 90s. The movie version would have it attacking major population centers but the USAF was more concerned about a localized EMP over the battle field. It would render all of the high tech weapons of the USAF more or less useless.
EMP had the added attraction for the Soviets of giving more bang for the buck. Since Soviet nukes were not thought to possess great accuracy, they tended to be built with greater yields. Basically if you can't hit it with a rifle shot, hit it with a howitzer. An EMP attack overcame the accuracy deficit one better; if you can't hit the street address, blackout the whole zip code.
Successfully launching an EMP burst would essentially blind your advisary and render anything that uses solid state components (including modern ignition systems) inoperable. This is in part why EMP has become an motivating concept for some "preppers". EMP does not have to come from a nuclear device, our good old sun is more than capable of spitting out a large enough burst of electro-magnetic energy to make the Soviet attack scenario look like a picnic.
But all of this seems to grandiose to me. We now live in the 21st Century with smart phones and tablet computers common place. I wondered, could you build a compact EMP generator that did not require a nuclear detonation?
A simple Google search for "EMP generator" produced 1.6 million hits! This shows an EMP attack is far more likely and concerning than anything I imagined back in the 20th Century. A large EMP generator could be built that could render a nuclear power plant, power grid, network operations center or telecommunications hub inoperable. Unlike a nuclear explosion, this could be covert and re-used to target different communications nodes. Also unlike our favorite WMD scenario, building an EMP generator is not likely to kill your operatives.
Unlike a cyber attack like Stuxnet, it doesn't require specialized coding and networking skills. Someone with basic electronics training could build something that could disrupt a police dispatching system. A coordinated attack of EMP generators through a major city or region could be easier to pull of that any of the other doomsday scenarios that are dreamed up by DHS.
The news will be filled with the NRA and gun control advocates battling it out over legislation. Images of confiscation will be transposed with images of more school shootings. Yet a terrorist cell is more likely to go for something more wide scale compared to a mass shooting spree (Mumbai being an exception). A coordinated EMP attack seems even more likely than it did 30 years ago.