Today's Movie-Plot Threat: Electronic Pulses from Space

No. Really:

The United States is highly vulnerable to attack from electronic pulses caused by a nuclear blast in space, according to a new book on threats to U.S. security.

A single nuclear weapon carried by a ballistic missile and detonated a few hundred miles over the United States would cause “catastrophe for the nation” by damaging electricity-based networks and infrastructure, including computers and telecommunications, according to “War Footing: 10 Steps America Must Take to Prevail in the War for the Free World.”

“This is the single most serious national-security challenge and certainly the least known,” said Frank J. Gaffney Jr. of the Center for Security Policy, a former Pentagon official and lead author of the book, which includes contributions by 34 security and intelligence specialists.

The “single most serious national-security challenge.” Absolutely nothing more serious.


Posted on November 23, 2005 at 7:39 AM57 Comments


someone November 23, 2005 8:18 AM

hey, it worked in “Golden eye”…
more likeley:
It is the single most serious try to push my book. (“Everybody panic! He said nuclear!”)

Anonymous November 23, 2005 8:19 AM

So…what they’re saying is that, should terrorists get nuclear warheads and ICBMs, we’re done for?

Seriously, this was part of every nuclear power’s first-strike scenarios since the fifties. I think that there are a few plans in place to deal with such an occurence.

Clive Robinson November 23, 2005 8:27 AM


Electro Magnetic Pulse wepons have been talked about for a while and you will sometimes see some of them refered to as HERF guns.

Two designs where available on the internet some time ago (no I cannot remember the URLs not that it matters).

The first used a coil of wire wrapped around a stick of explosive, basically you pumped a lot of energy into the high inductance coil, then set of the explosive. The explosion rapidly shorted out the turns of the coil in sequence magnifing the effects and reducing the inductance and capacitance, at the end the last coil effectivly radiated your pulse out on the coil axis. The pulse was due to the reduction in inductance and capacitance of extreamly short duration (sub nanosecond) and consiquently of very high power and frequency.

The second design was for a High Energy Radio Frequency (HERF) Gun by a Russian gentalman and basicly involved taking a microwave oven apart and powering the magnatron from a car battery. The output of the magnatron was focused using a conventional microwave horn.

Now a few years ago I did a similar thing to help out a friend with a “Death Watch Beatle” problem. Being lazy I simply bolted a home brew bit of wave guide onto the inlet port of the microwave oven main chamber fed this via a semi-flexable feed to my horn antenna onto which I mounted the power switch.

Now befor you try this at home I found that you could quite effectivly cook a pork chop at a short distance, so it is increadibly dangerous to do.

Having solved my friends “Death Watch” problem we went on to develop the idea for killing wood worm and other wood boaring grubs in old house timbers (you get a lot of this in old cotages in the UK).

The idea was that you do not need to use chemicals or make significant physical damage to the building fabric.

We looked at getting a patent for the idea but like a lot of realy good ideas somebody else had got there first in the US.

During the development we did a lot of the testing in a field well away from people to do this I powered the microwave from a 1KW UPS I had lying around. It quickly became clear that you could reasemble the main parts into a large briefcase and put a switch on the handle.

And yes just for fun you could (and we did) destroy radios, calculators and other unshielded electronic items at quite a distance. We even joked about using it to stop those loud semi portable music centeres carried around at the time.

Gary November 23, 2005 8:31 AM

People have been thinking about the EMP threat for, what, forty (fifty?) years now. “Least known?”- yuh right.

Does the Bulletin article look at the likelihood of terrorists having both powerful nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles (can I count that small?) – or is it appraising the EMP consequences? Or both?

Arturo Quirantes November 23, 2005 8:38 AM

It’s pathetic. They just don’t know how to scare us better. Come on! EMP from a nuclear blast in space is known by US war-planners for at least 50 years. Not a word to the public till now. Why? Maybe people are not scared enough. After all, how often does Joe Average travel in train/metro/plane or climbs up a tall building? Of course, aliens from outer space are still to visit us, and the occasional meteorite can do us no harm as long as we have nukes and Brice Willis. So what is the scare-of-the-week? EMP. After all, we all use electronic devices. Boo!

PJ November 23, 2005 9:19 AM

Unknown? All they have to do is read Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, which came out in the late 80s…

Joseph November 23, 2005 9:33 AM

On a serious note, though, do people routinely build faraday cages around high-end servers? They are usually protected through several layers of surge supression, but putting them in a faraday cage would help get them up and running faster after something like this, and would be really cheap compared to the server cost.. Of course, all the end-user devices would be fried, so I guess it doesn’t matter…

David Harmon November 23, 2005 9:40 AM

Sounds like an excuse to “regain our leadership in space”… by kneecapping everyone else. Not to mention an excuse for militarizing space in general.

Joseph November 23, 2005 10:06 AM

My comment may have been unclear. Servers are usually protected from the surge coming in over transmission lines by surge protectors, and putting them in a faraday cage would complete the protection package.

BonziSamuri November 23, 2005 10:10 AM

Lets see what is worse, ICBM blowing up in orbit frying an area’s computers


ICMB blowing up on the ground kills thousands in a huge fireball and spreading radiation that will kill thousands more?

Plus, most governments knew the EMP affects of nukes since the late 40s, so I am betting ever one of those cold war bunkers we have floating around is not just explotion/radiation/presue resistant, it has got a bit of EMP sheilding on it as well.

BTW: if memory serves, I recall hearing that the two 747s used by the president both have some sort of EMP sheilding on them.

Yeah, I for one, am not going to spend money on that book…

Clive Robinson November 23, 2005 10:15 AM

Just one thought…

Could the book be sponsored by the optical cable companies 😉

On a more serious note optical cables are non conductive and therefore not prone to EMP effects, it’s the terminating electronics that are.

So the more quickly low bandwidth copper in the ground is replaced by high bandwidth optical cables the less prone to EMP we will be (get me my 100Mbit Internet access now it’s a national security issue 😉

Usually EMP damage is due to microwave radiation getting in through ventilation slots etc in metal cases surrounding sensitive electronics. This causes standing waves that have high voltage components (+100V/meter). These high voltages bang holes in the gate structures of MOS devices which predominate modern electronics.

Apart from devices that need to receive EM signals (radio recivers, mobile phones, televisions etc) most equipment can be mounted in Faraday Scheilds with data coming in and going out over optical cable. The real problem is power the Switcher in your computer gets fried at around 700volts, the rise time on EMP is above the switching speed of most protection equipment (see specs for Transorbs etc).

However the knowledge of how to make pulse stretching filters is available in most good electronics books so it is not significantly difficult to make power line EMP hardening circuitry just expensive.

On another note how many people remember during the cold war a Russian FoxBat was flown out and pulled apart by the west. One comentry remarked at how primitive the avionics etc, and how the Radio systems still used acorn type valves (yep them old thermionic devices 😉 It was then pointed out that come a nucular engagment the EMP survivability of the fighter aircraft of the west was close to zero, whereas the FoxBat would fly on virtually unharmed.

jammit November 23, 2005 10:18 AM

And don’t forget to block out the sun. You know, those sunspots could be used by “terrorists”.

Zachary Richmond November 23, 2005 10:18 AM

This is a problem, yes maybe movie-plottish however, unlike 50 years ago, today we are way more dependent on electronics in our daily life and the increased nuclear capabilities of governments that hate the US is nothing to be laughed about. Don’t get me wrong though because I am sure that, just like anything else our government (conservative, liberal what’s the real difference anyway they all want to increase government control but just happen to go about it differently) uses to their advantage, this can and probably will be used to further their agenda and increase fear in the population. One bonus is that it would hopefully fry any tracking/id chips you might have on/in your person.

Jarrod November 23, 2005 10:37 AM

It is a lot of money, but this is a threat that cannot be feasibly protected against. You would have to shield every plane, every car, every factory, every home… and the cost just isn’t worth it.

If I were heading some group that wanted to do real damage, this is what I would choose. A Scud can reach an altitude of about 80km in about five minutes, depending on payload. At that height, the radius of EMP effect to the ground is about 1000km, with somewhat longer distances in the air. Virtually every electronic device in that radius is going to be destroyed unless the bomb fizzles or the military can somehow destroy the booster in flight.

But let’s look at what it takes for this.

  1. You have to have a trained launch crew. This is probably the easiest part of it in general, but the crew has to be trained in how to launch at sea, in pitching waves. Even slight motions can upset a rocket at launch. Training for this requires practice, and that increases the chances of being spotted.
  2. You have to have a launch site. Iran may have tested launching a Scud from a ship, but you need a ship designed for this. Putting a Scud launch system on the deck — even covered — is going to be highly visible, and putting it under the deck means significant modifications done in a shipyard.
  3. You need to have missiles. There would have to be at least two for decent chances of success: one for a practice launch, and one for the actual launch. This means buying them from a source willing to not only sell them, but potentially to incur the wrath of the United States following a nuclear attack, even if the weapon doesn’t directly destroy any structures on the ground. If you think the US is touchy following a conventional attack, something like this would have the gloves off. They would also have to be designed to carry a nuclear warhead, and there are only a tiny handful of nations that have this expertise.
  4. You have to have a nuclear warhead. Not only that, but it has to be small enough to fit into the nosecone of a Scud without throwing off the balance. Nuclear warheads are not lightweight things, especially if made by a country with little expertise in such things.
  5. You have to get close enough to the target to be effective, but far enough away to avoid suspicion. The Scud’s range is quite short — 300km or less in most cases, but that includes the ballistic terminal phase, so for best effect, one would still want to be within 150km of the coastline.

I place this at the edge of the same concern I have over certain groups getting access to this technology, which is unlikely to happen even for a conventional missile. There are far more chances to catch this in the planning process than the launch process, and that is where the focus should be.

Jeff November 23, 2005 10:51 AM

Remember — when Electro Magnetic Pulse weapons are outlawed, only outlaws will have Electro Magnetic Pulse weapons!

olec November 23, 2005 10:52 AM

Yeah, right. If Osama gets hold a megaton nuke on a rocket he is going to send it into space before detonating instead of just frying Manhattan.

Steve November 23, 2005 11:46 AM

@Clive Robinson:

“Death Watch Beatle”? Is that at all like waiting for Paul or Ringo to shuffle off this mortal coil?

Dancho Danchev November 23, 2005 12:45 PM

EMP weapons in this article are yet another strategy to justify the upcoming(in my point of view) space arms race expenses.

When you “end up” being an information economy, you have to face certain risks like these, but the use/abuse of these by terrorists is the second strategy for budget justification! As a matter of fact, correct me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t Saddam Hussein also “known to be” not just seeking, but actually owning WMD?

Respect for the author, and his “colleagues”, but sometimes you have to be a little bit pragmatic when it comes to fighting terrorism.

Great reading though, can be found at :

Davi Ottenheimer November 23, 2005 1:25 PM

Oh, yes, we need those giant military-industrial-complex defense systems to keep on giving.

Funny thing about the economics of military spending (ala the Broken Window Fallacy) if you reduce it and see a drop in related labor stats, you might actually see a rise in more productive areas of the economy (e.g. real goods and services).

Alas, I’m certain some of these security experts are thinking how hard it is to keep up with all the day-to-day security stuff like tamper-proof election systems, asset classification/protection…(incidentally, anyone else notice that California’s approval process for election systems is apparently in reverse?

How nice that they can say “Sorry, we have no time for minor threats and vulnerabilities, we’re working on the ‘single most serious national-security challenge’. If you are not here to discuss electronic pulses from space, please come back another day.”

Nova Lounge November 23, 2005 2:27 PM

Aren’t there any ‘security vendors’ willing to propose a $70 trillion Homeland Security defense shield against this nefarious “new” threat. Maybe a nation-spanning fine-mesh Faraday cage, arcing gracefully in all its coppery majesty from coast to coast? Would have the secondary benefits of protecting us from malevolent clouds, alien incursions, “the bird flu” and space radiation once the magnetic poles flip. It’s the perfect opportunity! (rolling eyes).

None November 23, 2005 3:26 PM

Thanks for the great pointers, and commentary, all.

We recently participated in the next iteration in an on-going series of major metro area disaster preparedness exercises. Being on the cyber dirty tricks squad, one of the things that we did to them (on paper only, mind you) was to set off eBombs that were strategically placed to see what the responders did (they were busy with other disaster response activity.) We did other things to disrupt the ongoing disaster response, and found that the emergency responders were prepared as long as they had fresh, working electronics. Some aspects of the infrastructure were quite simply put out of business. I think that everyone concerned has a new reality about EMP.

Based on available information, we postulated that terrorists could build a fine, though crude, weapon; place it, and set it off – all reasonably easily with modest resources. My personal conclusion from the exercise and the reading that I have done and the things that I have heard (such as the recent congressional testimony – it was on CSPAN) is that it is simply a matter of time before this actually happens. If the enemy follows the usage doctrine that is outlined in one of the earlier papers, and applies it to our critical infrastructure, we are simply screwed.

I propose that the reason that we should be interested in looking at this and working on it is, in part, to protect ourselves against crude weapons of relatively low yield that are easily placed. While a nuke is interesting, I suggest that we should develop a parallel interest in protecting the critical infrastructure (comm…) from smaller, well-placed weapons.

None November 23, 2005 3:32 PM

One thing that one looks at when purchasing voting machines (in the correct manner) is shielding… Ahhh Sig Int

Candide November 23, 2005 4:28 PM

The administration has already discussed turning off GPS in the case of emergency in order to hinder the terrorists, so having emergency preparedness against EMP attacks is probably good.

You never can have enough defense against friendly fire, y’know.

Ari Heikkinen November 23, 2005 4:34 PM

Please. If bin laden gets a hold of a real nuke you think he’d detonate it over a city instead of in a city? And if russians would really want to nuke US with those tens of thousands of ready thermonuclear ICBM’s (readily pointed at your roof) you really think there’d be any way to protect against it and survive?

Anonymous November 23, 2005 4:34 PM

As far as being little known – wasn’t there a cover story about high altitude EMP blasts in Popular Science in the late 70s or early 80s?

Bruce Schneier November 23, 2005 4:34 PM

“The administration has already discussed turning off GPS in the case of emergency in order to hinder the terrorists, so having emergency preparedness against EMP attacks is probably good.”

This is the first I’ve heard of this, but…off the top of my head…it sounds like a supremely bad idea. Like turning off cellphones in the event of an emergency, it hurts the good guys significantly. And it only hurts the bad guys if they happen to be planning something the relies on GPS technology.

Bruce Schneier November 23, 2005 4:36 PM

“As far as being little known – wasn’t there a cover story about high altitude EMP blasts in Popular Science in the late 70s or early 80s?”

And it was also the plot of a James Bond movie. And everyone knows that the terrorists get their ideas from NetFlix.

Thoughtful November 23, 2005 6:35 PM

Here’s some more speculation grist for the mill:

EMP by terrorist? Unlikely. Rogue nation-states with few warheads? Perhaps: more likely if they can hide behind a terrorist front group — easier said than done.

Politically, the U.S. would be unlikely to massively retaliate in the absence of a smoking crater and piles of bodies (especially if the source was not known).

Certainly established nuclear powers with space-launch and large warheads can do this. Russia, China, etc. But there is that massive retaliation thing…

Technical issues abound for first-timers: The 1962 Starfish Prime was a BIG device 1.4 MT by some reports — bigger than most of our current warheads. A tad big payload for a SCUD.

Does it take this large of device for effective EMP? Depends on the range and intensity of the effect required. Would a single-stage “atom bomb” device be sufficient? Our adversaries are probably wondering too. Single-stage weapons, <100 kt yield are the most likely device to be fielded by Iran or North Korea, IMHO.

The difficulty of launching a SCUD from a rolling ship is perhaps over-stated in previous comments. With EMP, you are not required to do precise targeting. Range and payload issues are real.

A modified SCUD lacks the payload to loft the most likely first-generation multi-stage weapons, even from short range. So unless someone has been slipping potential actors advanced, light, multi-stage warheads on the sly, they’d be taking a HUGE gamble in popping a might-be-too-small nuke over CONUS — even if they sank the launch freighter. Could they pull off a more limited strike that would only affect specific network nerve centers, say MAE-East and MAE-West? Possibly.

Killing electronics and not people would put the U.S. in a difficult political position for “massive” retaliation against an uncertain target.

Still, I think terrorist would prefer to see the smoking crater.

Nick November 23, 2005 6:39 PM


Perhaps you need to review the Millennium Challenge – the war game where the Blue Team excuted ‘technology denial’ attacks … and the Red Team commander said, “I’m using runners and bike messengers.” (Subsequently, the Blue Team declared this wasn’t allowed, and credited Blue with the advantage. “Hah! We took away their cell phones! They’re helpless!” – but that’s only true if the Red Team fielded a strategy based on cell phones. Just because WE can’t see living our lives ‘unplugged’ for a few hours does not mean we cannot do so at all.)

Did your thought exercise consider how ‘terrorists’ might construct, deploy, and utilize such ‘eBombs’ in complete secrecy? And, even if the creation/use of such devices is a given, why do you presume disabling a 911 call center is the best and most desirable target?

With all due respect, the ‘eBomb’ attack you postulated seems to be too impractical for use. Taking 911 off the air is ineffective if normal lines or alternate systems remain available; a broader attack against communications systems would be more effective in spreading confusion and terror – that is, if the average citizen can’t reach 911, can’t reach family, friends, coworkers … the impact is wider than taking down a single emergency call center.

Candide November 24, 2005 1:37 AM


“This is the first I’ve heard of this, but…off the top of my head…it sounds like a supremely bad idea. Like turning off cellphones in the event of an emergency, it hurts the good guys significantly. And it only hurts the bad guys if they happen to be planning something the relies on GPS technology.”

First you’ve heard of this? Say it ain’t so, Bruce!

Dimitris Andrakakis November 24, 2005 4:16 AM

It seems that these days, anybody that can imagine any one-in-a-gazillion
threat scenario can make money out of a) publicity (e.g. selling books,
writing in newspapers) or better b) selling gizmos to the goverment.

To us EU folks, it seems that the US taxpayers really have money to spend.

None November 24, 2005 4:55 PM

Re: “eBombs”

Ahhh, but 9-1-1 was just collateral damage.

Research indicates that nearly anyone could “construct, deploy, and utilize such ‘eBombs’ in complete secrecy?” The key is small and easily-placed. While some of the most detailed documentation seems to have disappeared, there is enough floating around.

Another reference to add to the list is a book called Black Ice: The Invisible Threat of Cyber-Terrorism (not the novel titled Blac Ice.) “eBombs” seems to be a popular term.

It appears that we used ‘eBomb(s)’ in Desert Storm to take out the telephone exchange, I think it was. And, the book’s author is of the same mind we are. A doable do and a serious theat.

Peter November 24, 2005 11:25 PM

There have been some stories floating around about banks being targeted by EMP devices, some built around surplus military radar units. The plot I’ve heard involves mounting the unit in a non-descript delivery truck/van, driving past your target bank, turning the unit on to disrupt computers. Sometime afterwards, you contact the bank, demanding money or you’ll interupt their business over and over again.

Ari Heikkinen November 25, 2005 12:49 PM

Ok, so how much money would it actually cost in real life to build say a real bank’s most critical rooms EMP in mind? I’d imagine a security expert evaluating these things would atleast provide an analysis of the threat for his clients in any case.

Ari Heikkinen November 25, 2005 12:56 PM

I’d also imagine in these days all you’d need for an EMP anyway would be an attacker and a van outside your building, not necessarily a nuke on orbit.

Dan L. November 25, 2005 2:52 PM

The most accurate movie to describe (and film) anything clode to this is “Trinity and beyond: The nuclear bonb movie”. In it, mutliple thermonuclear bombs had been documented as being detonated in space (can’t remember exact dates). They were eventually banned by treaty. It wasn’t clear if any EMP artificacts were evidenced on the ground..I’d like to know the answer to that one…? Maybe that would be our definitive proof of the effectiveness of these weapons. And yes, I think terrorists prefer blood and guts and media coverage of the same than dead electronics…so I think it highly unlikely they would waste resources pursuing these avenues. Only major countries like China would even contemplate it I think.

Nick November 25, 2005 7:00 PM


Either disabling 911 is the point of the attack or it isn’t. Nobody sets off EMP devices hoping for this as ‘collateral’ damage – what were they aiming for, otherwise? My laptop? My Palm Pilot, upon which the fate of the free world hinges?

How many explosions would it take to significantly impact, say, fire stations in a large metropolitan area, to the point that they can no longer respond? You are crediting the terrorists with a much larger network and resources – bombs must be planted ahead of time, in a secure and undetectable location, or detonated live.

You claim that this knowledge is ‘floating around,’ but for some reason, it’s disappeared? Therefore, certainly, all good terrorists must have a copy, and therefore, certainly, their choice of target is a 911 system. 911 systems are not nationwide, they’re regional, that is, distributed over an area.

Even worse, you’re predicating this whole strategy on ‘we took down their telephone exchange’ in Desert Storm. As I pointed out about the Millenium Challenge, why are you presuming ‘no phones’ is equal to ‘no ability to communicate’?

It’s like theorizing you can’t get into your car when your alarm remote doesn’t work.

As for ‘eBombs’ being a popular term, this is the first I’ve heard of it. The popularity of the term does not imply that it is, therefore, a deployable and practical strategy against which we must defend.

Finally, you’ve been talking about what the terrorists might be able to do. Fine, let’s credit them with the ability to disrupt first response.

What are YOU going to do about it? If local/state/federal agencies have a plan on how to deal with these attacks, then they become less worrisome overall.

Kevin November 26, 2005 3:28 AM

Just to clear this up, my family owns a large cold war bunker and it had a sturdy faraday cage around the entire skin of the structure – this really isnt new

Anonymous November 27, 2005 5:40 AM


“Have you read the one about the alien buffer over-flow signal?”

If I remember correctly the story resulted from a Journo not listening to what they where told about a security bug in the SETI@home software people run on their PCs…

Basicaly there was a buffer overflow bug that could be exploited by carefully selected data, now the data from SETI comes from “outer Space” and can be assumed to be mainly compleatly random in nature (unless green men do exist ;), therefore there is a finite possibility (if you don’t listen) that you could missconstrue the information as saying a “Message from out of space could be used to hack millions PCs”…

Oh boy do I love the way rumors start 🙂

Anonymous December 3, 2005 10:22 AM

EMP may or may not be a definite threat, but don’t overlook a real threat – China – Just a few months ago Chinese Maj. Gen. Zhu Chenghu said that China is prepared to use nuclear weapons against “hundreds” of U.S. cities if a conflict breaks out over Taiwan.

and China is also working on EMP weapons (perhaps they would use one immediately prior to an all out nuclear attack) – China is also working on EMP arms, according to a recent Pentagon report.

Below is an interesting web page I found online, it is for a call-in radio program on 5 days a week where anyone can call in with comments or questions relating to current world events. They have some very interesting and plausable views that will have you thinking more about your daily news, check it out at –

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