New EMP Missile Knocks out Computers and Electronics with Precision

Ask any Sci-Fi geek what the greatest threat to computers is and they will not respond with “Cyberwar”, or anything with the word “Cyber” in it. They will say – EMP. Electromagnetic Pulse weapons will kill any electronics in its blast radius. The problem is that EMP based weapons can have a large field of effect. An EMP blast from a high altitude nuclear weapon detonation could knock out systems in a whole country.

But what if you had the ability to target individual buildings? And not only that, what if you could place this weapon in a missile based package?

Well, now, you can!

Last week, members of Boeing, Raytheon and the US Air Force Research Laboratory successfully tested the first high power Microwave missile. The Counter-Electronics High Powered Advanced Missile Project or CHAMP for short, successfully targeted and destroyed the electronics in a two story building:

“CHAMP approached its first target and fired a burst of High Power Microwaves at a two story building built on the test range. Inside rows of personal computers and electrical systems were turned on to gauge the effects of the powerful radio waves.”

“Seconds later the PC monitors went dark and cheers erupted in the conference room. CHAMP had successfully knocked out the computer and electrical systems in the target building. Even the television cameras set up to record the test were knocked off line without collateral damage.”

This missile is a huge leap in EMP based weapons. The ability to target individual sites (7 were targeted in the test) with no collateral damage is imperative to the insurgent type wars that the US is fighting today.

This technology marks a new era in modern-day warfare, in the near future, this technology may be used to render an enemy’s electronic and data systems useless even before the first troops or aircraft arrive,” said Boeing program Manager Keith Coleman. “Today we turned science fiction into science fact”

The US already owns weapons that can knock out power plants. These weapons (Like the BLU-114/B) work by releasing conductive material over power plants. The material shorts out the high power transformers effectively shutting the plants down. Weapons like this were used by the US to take out Serbia’s power in 1999 and even Iraq’s power during Desert Storm.

But what if the target facilities have backup generators? Or you wanted to target individual buildings instead of entire cities? Or the target had electronics that needed to be destroyed? In these cases CHAMP would be an exceptional choice.

But using them together could be even more devastating to enemy forces.

This missile most likely will replace cyber warfare in many cases. As the “Shamoon” coder found out, code may not always act like you want it to. And one of the greatest fears in Cyber War is that the code will be captured, modified and used against the creator.

Using CHAMP will knock out not only the computers but any electronics in the target area.

Science Fiction has indeed become Science Fact!

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The Weapon that Disabled Iraq’s Power Grid

In a prior post on EMP, I mentioned that an EMP weapon could have been used to take out Iraq’s power during the Gulf War. It appears that it may have been something much simpler. Meet the “Blackout Bomb”.

According to a 1999 Boston Globe article, “Blackout Led to Weapon that Darkened Serbia”, chaff (strips of metal military planes use to defend against missile attacks) was dropped mistakenly on a power station in Southern California.  The result – the power station was disabled and Orange County’s power supply was disrupted.

This simple technique was turned into a cluster bomb and used first against Serbia on May 2nd 1999. F-117A Stealth Fighters dropped these weapons on Serbia power stations and the lights went out in over 70% of the country. The weapon was used again 5 days later to hinder Serbia’s attempt to restore power.

In the opening days of Desert Storm, modified tomahawk cruise missiles were used against Iraq. The warheads were made up of bomblets that contained spools of carbon fiber wire. The fine wire shorted out power plants and disabled 85% of Iraq’s electrical production capability.

How exactly does this attack work? According to the FAS Military Analysis Network:

The BLU-114/B detonates over its target and disperses huge numbers of fine carbon filaments, each far smaller than the crude wire spools used in the gulf war. The filaments are only a few hundredths of an inch thick and can float in the air like a dense cloud. When the carbon fiber filaments dispensed from the BLU-114/B submunition contact transformers and other high voltage equipment, a short circuit occurs and an arc is often created when the current flows through the fiber, which is vaporized.

The graphite, which is a conductor of electric current, is probably coated with other materials to enhance these effects. At the spot where the electric field is strongest, a discharge is initiated, and electrons rapidly form an ionized channel that conducts electricity. At this stage current can flow and an arc forms. This causes instantaneous local melting of a certain amount of the material at the surface of the two conductors.

If the current involved is strong enough, these arcs can cause injury or start a fire. Fires can also be started by overheated equipment or by conductors that carry too much current. Extremely high-energy arcs can cause an explosion that sends fragmented metal flying in all directions.

Read more about this amazing weapon at FAS.org.

Is America Vulnerable to EMP Attack?

One of the biggest military threats to electronics is an Electromagnetic Pulse Attack (EMP). EMP’s are usually generated when a nuclear weapon explodes, but can be generated by other means. A wave of EMP energy can destroy any electronics in their path. Commercial and utility companies currently have no defense for an EMP attack. This means that computers, communication devices, and even cars could all be disabled by an EMP.

According to a Foxnews interview with Jena Baker McNeill (a Homeland Security Policy Analyst), 28 countries have the ability to create or deliver an EMP attack. Iran, Russia and China are very invested in this type of weapon. What is the US doing to protect itself from EMP? Not much according to Jena, congress has ignored it and even decreased defense spending. Nice… 

Okay, trivia time, has an EMP bomb ever been purposely dropped over a large populated area? The answer is, yes! According to Wikipedia: 

 “In 1962, the Soviet Union also performed a series of three EMP-producing nuclear tests in space over Kazakhstan, which were the last in the series called “The K Project”. Although these weapons were much smaller (300 kilotons or 1.3 PJ) than the Starfish Prime test, since those tests were done over a populated large land mass (and also at a location where the Earth’s magnetic field was greater), the damage caused by the resulting EMP was reportedly much greater than in the Starfish Prime nuclear test.  

The geomagnetic storm-like E3 pulse (from the test designated as “Test 184″) even induced an electrical current surge in a long underground power line that caused a fire in the power plant in the city of Karaganda. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the level of this damage was communicated informally to scientists in the United States. Formal documentation of some of the EMP damage in Kazakhstan exists but is still sparse in the open scientific literature.” 

There are also reports that the US used EMP weapons against Iraq during the Gulf War. Reportedly power went out to Baghdad, even though the power generator plant was not damaged. Our military equipment for the most part is protected from EMP, but something must be done to protect our critical infrastructure.

* Update – See “The Weapon that Disabled Iraq’s Power Grid