Non-Nuclear EMP: Automating the Military May Prove a Real Threat
by Major Scott W. Merkle
How is this for a grand scenario?...One that would
make an airborne assault with combat equipment, followed by a
twenty-five-mile forced march sound enticing. You are the
operations officer (S3) of your battalion and tomorrow you are to
present your one-hundred-plus slide quarterly training brief
(QTB) presentation, but for some unknown reason, all of the
automation equipment on post is down. You hurry home to print it
on your own PC, but your system is also down
(and you just spent the whole weekend with that new income tax
software working on your return).
You wonder...How could such a catastrophe occur? What could cause
this to happen? Then you remember the movie that you saw this
past weekend. About ruthless forces threatening to use a weapon
capable of destroying the computer chips and memories upon which
our lives depend. But one man stood in their way: "Bond... James
Hollywood shenanigans? Implausible? Science fiction? The answers
are yes, no, and maybe. The 007 saga "Goldeneye" is about
attempts to prevent the neophyte, but dangerous, Russian Mafia
from using an orbiting space weapon (called Goldeneye), which can
blast uncooperative nations with pulses of energy, harmless to
people but devastating to electronic devices and their
components. Airplanes would fall from the skies, nuclear-power
plants would race out of control, financial records would be
erased, and your one-hundred-plus QTB slide presentation would be
Could this actually happen? The fact is, that today, there is
technology available that could do just that. Fortunately,
international treaties governing the use of outer space and the
availability of the simpler, non-nuclear-pulse weapons make the
specifics from the "Goldeneye" scenario improbable. Then again,
the military has earned a reputation for falsely labeling as
fiction advanced weapons and units already within its arsenals;
remember the Pentagon's embarrassment when surprisingly accurate
models of its supposedly super-secret stealth-fighter aircraft
began appearing at your local toy store?
Real EMP Weapons
In reality, the existence of Goldeneye-like pulse weapons first
became a fact in the early 1960s. While testing hydrogen bombs in
outer space, hundreds of miles above the planet, American and
Soviet scientists discovered that each atomic blast created a
pulse of electromagnetic energy similar to conventional
radio-made microwaves, but with energy so great that they erased
magnetic memories and melted the microscopic junctions in
transistors on the Earth below. These were veritable tidal waves
of energy, sufficient to cripple sensitive microelectronics but
too weak to be seen, heard, or felt by human beings.1
During one U.S. test, in July 1962, a hydrogen bomb was detonated
approximately 650 miles in space, roughly where today's space
shuttles orbit. Simultaneously, 2100 miles to the northeast,
street lights went dark and burglar alarms began ringing on the
Hawaiian islands. The reason was an electromagnetic pulse (EMP)
produced by the blast.2
Due to this reaction, in 1963 the United States and the Soviet
Union signed the Atmospheric Test Ban Treaty to counter the
considerable threat posed by EMPs. Since then, that threat has
grown at a fantastic rate, fueled by the rapid progress made in
compacting ever more EMP-sensitive transistors onto the computer
chips upon which modern electronics rely.3 Can you imagine your
neighbor being able to go down to the local radio parts store,
buy a hand-held EMP weapon, and use it to wipe out your household
electronics? All because he is angry at you.
According to a declassified U.S. military report, the explosion
of a bomb about one megaton in size (the exact size remains
classified) eight hundred miles over Omaha, Nebraska, would
shower the continental United States, southern Canada, and
northern Mexico with an EMP capable of disabling virtually every
computerized circuit in its path. Edward Teller, the father of
the hydrogen bomb, succinctly described the damaging consequences
of such an EMP attack in 1982, when he wrote in an obscure
Today there is almost universal dependence on electronic
computers. They are used by first-graders as well as research
engineers. Industry, communications, financial records, are all
at stake here. In the event of heavy EMP radiation, I suspect it
would be easier to enumerate the apparatus that would continue to
function than the apparatus that would stop.4
Are you now beginning to reconsider that purchase of the latest
superhot mini-tower PC? Relax. It is unlikely that a nuclear
blast will occur in space any time soon. The Outer-Space Treaty
of 1967, since ratified by the members of the United Nations,
explicitly states that treaty partners not place any objects
carrying nuclear weapons in Earth's orbit great idea, in
principle. The trouble is, the treaty does not oblige any nation
to allow others to inspect the cargo they send into space.5 So,
if Iraq obtained nuclear weapons and was capable of launching
them into a space orbit around the Earth for detonation over the
United States (in revenge of Operation DESERT STORM), you could
kiss your fancy E-mail system goodbye.
The Non-Nuclear EMP Threat
So, to this extent, the plot of "Goldeneye" is plausible. Any of
several nations with nuclear weapons and the capacity to launch
them into space including the United States, Russia, China, and
even Israel could conceivably pulse us back to, shall we say, a
simpler time when operations orders were done orally with a
sandtable, instead of with the high-speed graphics and charts
that turn into an encyclopedia that few people care to read. Even
more unsettling, however, is the fact that the U.S. Defense
Technology Plan confirms that development of advanced EMP weapons
continues to this day, and not just by the Americans. According
to a report drafted by conservative members of the French
National Assembly in 1992, EMP weapons testing was a recommended
goal during France's 1995 underground nuclear tests.6
Some really scary parts of the EMP story did not make it into
James Bond's latest adventure. Weapons designers specializing in
high-energy physics can now create electromagnetic pulses without
going into outer space. One approach involves harnessing the
force of a conventional explosion. Others are simply just
modifications of radar, which bounces pulses of energy off
aircraft in flight, vehicles on the ground, and other objects.7
Crank up the power and you have an EMP weapon, ready to point at
the computers of your favorite enemy.
This knowledge has set off a new arms race. Whether fitted into
cruise missiles or parked at the side of the road in a van,
non-nuclear EMP weapons have the potential to devastate the
electronic systems of areas as large as a city or as small as a
selected building, all without being seen, heard, or felt by a
single soul.8 It is a dream come true for any and all terrorists,
to include Saddam Hussein himself!
Sound far-fetched? It did not in 1993 to the owners of
automobiles parked about 300 meters from a U.S. Defense
Contractor's EMP generator test site at Eglin Air Force Base in
Florida. Their alternators and electronic engine controls were
accidentally fried by a pulse during classified field trials.9
Specific Threatto the Military
So what is the non-nuclear EMP threat to our military today? It
is, put simply, that while we are quite enamored of our
technological progress, we would do well to ensure that basic
infantry skills, those things that have enabled America to have
the greatest army in the world, are not forgotten. It can be
readily observed that the United States is devoting a significant
amount of time, energy, and hard working tax-payer dollars to
"push the technology envelope" to prepare for the Force XXI
The Army will equip tomorrow's infantry soldier with a totally
integrated fighting system that takes full advantage of
technological advances. Their fighting load modules include vests
with removable ammunition pouches enabling them to carry the
soldier radio, battlefield computer, global positioning system
(GPS), and required antennas. One burst of EMP will render this
equipment inoperable, rendering the 21st century land warrior
ineffective on the Force XXI battlespace. He will still be able
to fight, but without his wondrous gadgets and gizmos.
Therefore, it seems to me that while developing and implementing
technologies and strategies for the Force XXI battlespace, we
also need to emphasize force modernization in developing
technologies and strategies to counter the EMP threat. It is even
more important that our junior leaders and soldiers become and
remain exceptionally proficient in basic skills of land
navigation, small unit tactics, and sandtable operations and
operations orders. I would not discard that Ranger handbook just
yet. At the battalion level, I recommend that the battalion
intelligence officer keep those grease pencils, templates, and
manual weather forecasting equipment handy because the Joint
Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System, All-Source Analysis
System, and most other "high tech" intelligence connectivity
systems will not be working.
In sum, while I advocate taking full advantage of any and all
technologies that will enhance our ability to fight and win
America's battles, we must not lose sight of one essential fact.
Gadgets and gizmos do not take and hold terrain, nor do they
fight and win on the battlefield well-trained soldiers do!
Non-nuclear EMP has the potential to reduce the battlefield
equation to very simple terms. I submit that in this scenario,
"back to basics" becomes more than a simple clich‚. Stripped of
the technology, the soldier who is well versed in basic
soldiering skills will be victorious.
One thing is certain: in case of an EMP attack, don't bother
calling James Bond. Your telephone won't be working.
1. Harry Gefen, Mind & Matter , The Globe and
Mail, (9 December 1995), D-8.
2. Ibid, D-8.
3. Ibid, D-8.
4. Ibid, D-8.
5. Ibid, D-8.
6. Ibid, D-8.
7. Ibid, D-8.
8. Ibid, D-8.
9. Ibid, D-8.
Major Merkle is a student assigned to the Air Command
and General Staff College, Maxwell Air Force Base, Montgomery,
Alabama. He has served in numerous intelligence positions such as
Assistant S2 and S5, 1st Ranger Battalion; Assistant S2 and
Special Security Officer, 75th Ranger Regiment; and S2, 3d Ranger
Battalion. Major Merkle is a graduate of Glassboro State College
in New Jersey and holds a bachelor of arts degree in Geography.
Readers can contact him via E-mail at email@example.com. af.mil.