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We’re Still Worrying About EMPs

by John Reed on February 29, 2012

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.


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{ 45 comments… read them below or add one }

Black Owl February 29, 2012 at 6:13 pm

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


Cthel February 29, 2012 at 6:24 pm

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 March 1, 2012 at 3:45 am

Sounds like Gingrich! with more logic though!


Jeff March 1, 2012 at 9:16 am

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 March 1, 2012 at 9:49 am

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 February 29, 2012 at 6:46 pm

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 February 29, 2012 at 8:16 pm

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 February 29, 2012 at 9:38 pm

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.


Jay March 1, 2012 at 9:37 am

Do they do this?

If you put holes in the box for the FO interface don't you get EM in the box?


ADR February 29, 2012 at 7:19 pm

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


blight_ February 29, 2012 at 8:14 pm
dfc February 29, 2012 at 8:16 pm

TEMPEST has nothing to do with EMP attacks…


CoCowboy692000 March 12, 2012 at 11:58 am

Still having a bit of trouble posting – hopefully, this last one posted…


mpower6428 February 29, 2012 at 7:38 pm

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


Jeff March 1, 2012 at 5:37 am

Except by law, no consumer electronics is allowed to have electronic shielding.


Twidget at large March 1, 2012 at 8:07 am

Realy? No shielding allowed? Honestly interested here.


Jeff March 1, 2012 at 9:13 am

Really. It has to do with the fact that in shielding electronics you create a barrier to wireless, radio, and other signal transmission so if all your appliances and electronic devices had shielding broadcasters would have to boost their signals higher to get past the signal diffusion and interfence all the shielded devices might cause. For that reason the FCC makes it illegal for manufacturers to design it in.


blight_ February 29, 2012 at 10:22 pm

Off topic, but what facility is this?

Looks like underground facility of some kind…


Maxtrue March 1, 2012 at 8:36 am

interesting blight. Nothing on the map, location is strange. Lots of vents and a separate rail line. I've found other strange faculties. See Iran. Planes over fly this directly from Mangla Air Port


FormerDirtDart March 1, 2012 at 9:32 am

The rail line within the compound's fence appears overgrown and abandoned, The rail spur leading north ends abruptly, where it would have linked into the spur line leading to the Central Ordnance Depot Kala which is about one mile away, ENE


blight_ March 1, 2012 at 9:50 am

Would that be the facility to the east?


FormerDirtDart March 1, 2012 at 10:00 am

Yes. I put the lat-long into Google maps. Found it much easier to scroll around the area. It also has a tag on the facility in question, as COD Kala

blight_ March 1, 2012 at 11:08 am

Regarding COD Kala: http://cdigital.com.pk/portfolio/51-security-a-su

I guess they did a surveillance project some time ago. Maybe it isn't so abandoned after all. Hrm.


blight_ March 1, 2012 at 10:09 am
AFRet05 March 1, 2012 at 9:18 am

Several of the structures look like weapon bunkers.


CoCowboy692000 March 11, 2012 at 10:36 pm

Well, I'm not sure if you're looking for some exact name for this facility or not. But this is located in Talianwala, Pakistan as far as I can tell. It's actually a fairly large facility and appears to be a DUMB of some kind to include *MANY*, either vents or missle silos thoughout the facility… Entrances to the DUMB appear to be over 100 feet wide. Additionally, there is fairly heavy fencing around this facility judging from what I can see. Like I said, I don't know exactly what you're looking for.

Given its proximity to India, I'd guess its defensive against them and China since they're all such fantastic friends. It is southeast of Islamabad… I don't know if that's what you were looking for or not…


terry stanton March 1, 2012 at 12:17 am

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


mike j March 1, 2012 at 1:07 am

A solar storm would actually be the most likely threat, and the most hazardous. So we should definitely find ways to protect the electrical grid and devices. But most of the stuff about EMP attacks you hear is just hype, pumped by politicians or groups connected to missile defense.


Cthel March 1, 2012 at 3:05 am

In some ways, geomagnetic storms are more dangerous to power grids than EMP strikes. Although they wouldn't fry individual electronic components, they can induce truly massive currents in long conductors – for example, high voltage transmission lines.

The last big geomagnetic storm was in the 19th century, and not only did it bury the needle on every magnetometer in the world, but it practically melted the transatlantic telegraph cable – considering this was a copper cable ~6 inches thick, that's a pretty scary voltage.

Since a geomagnetic storm hits the whole world pretty much simultaneously, they have the potential to fry every single transformer that's connected to the grid.


McPosterdoor March 1, 2012 at 12:32 pm

Yo, last i checked only half the Earth faces the sun at any given time, how can it hit the whole world pretty much simultaneously? I could carry through lines in the blast zone out to parts not in the area of effect, but that would be it from what i can gather. Thoughts?


Bob March 1, 2012 at 10:25 am

It would take a very large CME to have similar results as some kind of air-burst EMP releasing weapon. I don't know what's more likely to happen first a strong enough CME or some terror event with an EMP type weapon. We get hit with CME's all the time and "usually" at best we get a good display the Aurora's. I think the last time a CME has done some localized major damage was back in the early 90's to the power grid near Montreal.


Ems March 1, 2012 at 5:01 am

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 March 1, 2012 at 10:29 am

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 March 1, 2012 at 12:44 pm

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 March 1, 2012 at 2:04 pm

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


Dennis March 1, 2012 at 2:27 pm

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 March 2, 2012 at 7:04 pm

Another reason to encourage more fiber Internet. >.>


AFRet05 March 1, 2012 at 9:21 am

Those sites exist for space weather issues affecting satellites. CMEs normally don't affect the surface of the Earth due to the Van Allen belts acting as a shield. If a CME was powerful enough that it would reach the surface you will have a lot more to worry about than EMP!


blight_ March 1, 2012 at 10:06 am

Hah, one of the few instances where google maps says more than wikimapia.


Jeff March 1, 2012 at 11:10 am

Maybe my prior post lacks specificity, but this is what I mean. I'm not talking about just any shielding. What I'm saying refers specifically to the level of shielding required to protect electronics from an EMP. That those are inherently so disruptive that they can't pass the FCC's standards and testing.

Shielding from EMP hardened electronics can cause signal diffusion, requiring a stronger signal than otherwise to reach recievers. Thats why the FCC does disruption testing, because if your shielding is too good its bad for everyone else.

Its like shining a light across a dark room, devices that meet FCC standards are like big chain linked fences that allow most but not all light through, while something truely hardened against EMPs is like dropping a big black box in the middle of the room, allowing only the light that goes around it to reach the wall. When your goal is to illuminate as brightly as much of the wall as possible you have a problem. An antenna simply aids in reception and transmission but if I put something like what I'm talking about in between you and the reciever it might never recieve the signal with enough strength.


Mathieu March 1, 2012 at 1:46 pm

I'm not allowed to reply to AFRet05's response? He was mostly right, I was pointing out that such a CME did hit the earth in 1859.


mike j March 2, 2012 at 3:49 am

re:"That blast took out the electrical grid and phone lines in Hawaii."

Get a grip. The Starfish Prime test had a yield of 1.4 MTs. It knocked out street lights, set off some burglar alarms, and caused a microwave telephone relay to fail, not "the electrical grid."


Maxtrue March 2, 2012 at 9:11 am

I saw the COD kala tag from the start by toggling between various map formats but Google search returns shipping invoices for Jersey clothes and other consumer products. Thanks for showing Central Ordnance Depot instead of Cash on Delivery….lol

So shall we say a former ordnance compound though not everything here seems over grown or un-used? Those deep vents don't look over grown with foliage. The air port is near by. Any chance something is still tested under ground? I bet an Indian military seismologist could say……


blight_ March 2, 2012 at 9:27 am

It's possible they let foliage overgrow it as cover for an active facility. Then again, the footage may be old too. Google Earth has a mode that lets it peel through old USGS imagery, so that might be interesting to look at.


FormerDirtDart March 2, 2012 at 11:40 am

Unfortunately, Google Earth's imagery with decent resolution only goes back to 2006. And, it shows little to no change.
It does lead me to believe those are not air vent all over the place, but concrete pits. There are 2 pit/vents in the south east corner that appear empty (light color) in 2010, but filled (dark) in 2006.
The "tunnels" in the central ring appear to be just independent bunkers. They all appear to have two small venting stacks at the rear. As does every bunker in the facility.
The rail spur into the facility does no link into the rail system north of the facility. It appears to have at one time. The whole junction point between the spur and main line appears to have degraded further.


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