At the beginning of the Gulf War in 1991, the United States quickly destroyed Iraq’s command and control systems, knocking out communications and leaving the Iraq army scurrying aimlessly. Achieving this required more than 100,000 flight missions and close to 88,500 tons of explosives.
Nearly 20 years later, achieving similar results would require just one bomb. Or, as Boeing recently demonstrated, a handful of drones that would leave nothing destroyed other than electronics.
A drone flew over the Utah Test and Training Range, its target a building filled with rows of computers far below. Their screens flickered and went black, the camera monitoring the damage soon to follow as the systems were hit with invisible microwaves. Following the Nov. 22 test, Boeing announced its first Counter-electronics High-powered Microwave Advanced Missile Project (CHAMP) weapon to the public.
“This technology marks a new era in modern-day warfare,” said Keith Coleman, CHAMP program manager for Boeing Phantom Works, in a post on Boeing’s website.
Coleman couldn’t be more right. The CHAMP is among the first of many weapons that use high-power microwaves (HPM) to permanently destroy electronics used in communications systems, computers, generators, and even bombs. CHAMP works similarly to an electromagnetic pulse (EMP), both falling under the category of electronic warfare systems.
Soon such electronic warfare systems could even appear in the public sphere. A recent Army document requested EMP grenades for soldiers and EMP munitions for Stinger, Hydra, and Javelin missiles that could disable roadside bombs. The document noted “these same non-lethal munitions would benefit the bomb squads of local, state, and federal law enforcement.”
EMP and HPM weapons are hailed as being capable of destroying systems without loss of human life, as opposed to explosives once used to achieve similar objectives. Yet hanging on the cusp of the new form of warfare are new threats that the world—not to mention the United States—is unprepared for.
“In the long run it’s probably going to save the military lots of money, it’s going to save people on the battlefield. But how long before it’s used on us?” said David Bellavia, president of EMPact America, a bipartisan, non-profit organization concerned with protecting the American people from nuclear or natural EMP.
“Once the technology is mass produced, it can be used by anyone,” Bellavia said.
The EMP from a nuclear warhead detonated 15 miles above the earth’s surface could destroy electronics across the entire United States.
The aftermath would be similar to what was seen in New York and New Jersey after millions lost power following Hurricane Sandy—only across the whole country. With logistics dependent on electronics and logic circuitry, food supplies would be cut off, heat would be gone, and information obtained through any means but word of mouth would be lost.
Under such an EMP attack, even the electronics inside cars would be fried.
The military has systems for defending against electronic warfare, but high costs and veiled information keep it from the public. “There is a lot of stuff that’s used that’s classified, so it’s very hard to find out how to fight an EMP,” said Terry Minarcin, a retired Air Force cryptologist who was assigned to the NSA.
The challenge, according to Minarcin, is that since an EMP travels at the speed of light while traveling through wires and cables, electronic systems can’t adjust to the power surge in time to resist it. “If you see the event taking place, it’s already past you,” Minarcin said. “Then it becomes a cascade effect when it starts knocking out your electrical relays.”
Bellavia said he believes something can be done, and the answer could rest in the H.R.668 SHIELD Act (Secure High-voltage Infrastructure for Electricity from Lethal Damage). The bill was introduced by Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), and referred to the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Feb. 11, 2011.
The Shield Act would place a system similar to a circuit breaker on each of the 300 critical transformers within the U.S. electric grid. “It would stop a surge right in its place,” Bellavia said. “So instead of going down the grid like a domino, it would just kill it there at its source.”
The only two companies that manufacture the circuit breakers are located in Germany and South Korea, and manufacturing time is an estimated 18 months. Setting up the circuit breakers would cost close to $2 billion, but losing the transformers on the grid would be no simple matter.
“It’s not about science fiction,” Bellavia said, noting that while “we can do everything we can to eliminate the threat of a nuclear EMP,” solar flares such as those in 1989 that took out power stations in Quebec, Canada, and along the U.S. east coast will still be a threat.