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What is the EMP effect?
The electro-magnetic pulse (aka EMP) is a short burst of electromagnetic energy (as short as hundreds of nanoseconds), taking the form of a pulse of radiated electro-magnetic field or of a conducted electrical current (depending on the source of origin). It’s always disruptive on electronic equipment. They happen commonly in nature (lightning, electromagnetic discharge or even meteor EMP) or they can be man-made (electric motors, gasoline engine ignition systems, power lines surges). The military EMP devices (although are also man-made), are build to serve a whole different purpose.
They are highly advanced tactical weapons meant for combat. They are non-lethal, but they debilitate the enemy’s combat capacity by rendering useless everything that uses or runs on electrical currents. The EMP weapons can be nuclear (HEMP – capable of producing a pulse of immense magnitude) and non-nuclear EMP weapons (NNEMP).
How much harm can a non-lethal weapon cause?
Loads and loads of it! Civilian and commercial computer systems are most vulnerable to EMP attacks. They are basically built of high density Metal Oxide Semiconductors (MOS), extremely exposed to high voltage transients. These types of devices don’t require high amounts of energy to be completely annihilated. In fact, it takes only a variation of tens of Volts to produce the gate oxide breakdown effect that eventually destroys the targeted apparatus. Some devices may resist such an attack and may still run even while “wounded”, but their reliability comes hard into question. Protection cases exist and might have been efficient, except for one Achilles’ heel: the casing will not protect the cables, which acting like antennas, will direct the pulse straight into the circuitry. The computers used in data processing systems, communications, industrial control applications (ex. Road and rail signaling), electronic flight control, digital engine controls and common mobile phones are VULNERABLE to EMP attacks! But processing units are not the only targets. Even simpler electronics, based on copper wiring, transistors and diodes are just as vulnerable. After an EMP attack, don’t count on your generators too much. The victims of an EMP affected area won’t even have the convenience of electrical light, yet alone TV, internet or radio. Such a massive electronic takedown would immediately result into a social and economic disaster.
How can we defend ourselves?
The best way of avoiding the effects of a fully unleashed electro-magnetic pulse would be to destroy the platform carrying the bomb (be it jet or vehicle). But this would be a long shot, so the next best thing would be to fully incase every single piece of equipment that is susceptible to EMP radiation in protective casings, capable of withstanding (some, if not all) the impact. These types of casing are called Faraday cages and they keep the electromagnetic field away from the circuit boards. The power cables are still a possible back door for the destructive pulse, so special electromagnetic arresting devices can be fitted in order to help dampen the effect. The fiber optic cables used for data transfer however, are completely safe.
Production costs are important! As an electronic or electrical system is composed of numerous elements, precautions must be taken for each one of them, individually. The breakdown of a single component could cease the activity of the entire system. In most cases is cheaper to design new EMP resistant equipment then it would be to upgrade an old one. Maintenance costs could sky-rocket if, for example, you tied to fix complex circuitry that has been slightly affected, but not destroyed. The inconsistency of the malfunctioning gadget could be caused by a minor component, but the time and effort put into detecting and fixing the problem might not be worth it.
Another means of defense against the EMP attack, tactical facilities especially should not radiate detectable emissions. Where radio frequency communications must be used, low probability of intercept techniques should be employed exclusively to preclude the use of site emissions for electromagnetic targeting purposes
Is this doomsday scenario possible?
Yes, it is! According to Dr. Peter Vincent Pry (Executive Director of the Task Force on National and Homeland Security and Director of the U.S. Nuclear Strategy Forum), Russia has realised the potential of full-out EMP attacks and has been developing the technology ever since. The US has been doing just about the same. But meanwhile, more and more states interested in this subject. Experts declare that North Korea have been developing their own nuclear and EMP programs, with the help of the Russian Federation. In May 2009, the North Koreans detonated an EMP warhead that produced high-gamma output combined on a relatively small blast output of three kilotons.
Dr. Pry claims that the Iranian military forces are also in the in possession of EMP tactical warheads based on military training programs, which would suggest high altitude practice strikes. Needles to say that these three regimes consider the US as their enemy and primary target. But things might have just gotten worse, as data suggests even terrorist groups (such as ISIS) have been getting in possession on EMP weapons.
As time passes by, our enemies are getting stronger. And so must we. Be alert, keep calm and stay informed! We might just make it.
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