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Last Updated: Mon Jan 27 11:18:09 UTC 2014

E-Bomb Frequently Asked Questions
For the EE Community

Dr Carlo Kopp, Associate Fellow AIAA, Senior Member IEEE, PEng

© 2012 Carlo Kopp

Electromagnetic bomb mockup located on a Los Angeles high rise rooftop helicopter pad, prior to the NCIS LA Episode 3.11 “Higher Power” shoot in October, 2011 (Courtesy of Shane Brennan Productions).

What are the most common questions asked about electromagnetic weapons?

Why do they work? The “
information age” has seen the pervasive use of digital hardware, mostly based on silicon monolithic technology, across the complete infrastructure of developed nations, whether in handheld devices, domestic or office equipment, transportation, production, health, or education. Expose any monolithic semiconductor device to voltages, whether transient or radiofrequency, in excess of the specification limits of several Volts, and bad things usually happen. Dielectric insulators break down or leak, and reverse biased junctions suffer avalanche breakdowns. With a mains or battery power supply attached to the device, often very little energy is actually needed to initiate a catastrophic electrical failure - the power supply is what actually delivers the killing blow. Imagine that the electromagnetic weapon is like a device putting a crack into a dike, and the power supply is like the body of water which causes the actual damage.

What kinds of electromagnetic weapons exist?
Put simply, a great many. A trivial taxonomy divides such weapons by steady state or transient effect, the former being beam weapons and the latter being one-shot E-bombs, and then by spectral coverage, whether wideband or narrowband, and low or high frequency, and emitted power. A wideband low frequency low power one shot weapon might be a submunition for a cluster bomb using a rare earth magnet with a high explosive jacket, while a wideband high frequency high power repetively pulsed weapon might be a Marx bank driven Landecker Ring mounted in the focal area of a parabolic dish antenna. The term
E-bomb, which I coined in 1996, has been used to describe high altitude nuclear Electro Magnetic Pulse (EMP) bombs, as well as much smaller non-nuclear devices based on Flux Compression Generators, the latter producing direct low frequency wideband effects, or used as a one-shot pulsed power supply for High Power Microwave (HPM) tube such as a Virtual Cathode Oscillator  (Vircator).

What is a Flux Compression Generator?
Invented by the late Max Fowler at Los Alamos National Laboratories during the 1940s, the FCG is an explosively driven electromagnetic amplifier. Primed with an initial  electrical
starting current, a high velocity explosive is used to mechanically compress the magnetic field, which in turn transfers energy from the explosive into the magnetic field. While the FCG disintegrates during operation, in operation it produces an enormously powerful pulse of electrical current. Cascading two or three FCGs can yield hundredfold amplication of the initial pulse, which is usually produced by a high voltage capacitive device called a Marx Bank. The biggest FCGs have produced peak power outputs of many GigaWatts.

Why use a Vircator?
Microwave devices like the Vircator allow the power produced by the FCG to be quite precisely focussed against a target area up to hundreds of metres or more away from the FCG, which left to itself, produces most damage only within tens of metres. The antenna attached to the Vircator is not unlike the reflector in a torch or car headlight. Ordinary inverse square law physics then apply, with field strength diminishing with distance. Choose the right E-bomb power, antenna gain, and distance, and you can achieve a reasonably precise peak electrical field strength over an intended target area.

How does the microwave power couple into targets? Place a digital device into a microwave oven, turn on the oven, and then see if the device still works. Likely it won't. Microwave radiation will have penetrated into the device through cracks, crevices, cooling grills and exposed wiring. Much the same happens with a microwave E-bomb. Mains power wiring and copper network cabling will behave like an antenna, and while the E-bomb is radiating, electrical standing waves will appear on the cables, producing large voltages at the ends of the cables, where devices are attached. Gaps, loose panels, cooling grilles and other openings, as well as antennas, may also allow the radiation into the equipment. Electrically lethal field strengths for consumer equipment vary between 10 kiloVolts/metre up to 30 kiloVolts/metre.

What is a cascade failure?
In a large interconnected system, like a power grid or computer network, a cascade failure arises when the failure of one device triggers an overload and failure in another, and the damage effects then propagate bringing down much, most or all of the network. E-bombs have the potential to produce massive cascade failures in a pervasive digital insfrastructure, as they can cause simultaneous massed failures in a large percentage of electronic equipment, if not all
electronic equipment, within the lethal footprint of the weapon. Switchmode power supplies blowing out can produce electrical spikes in a power grid, and having hundreds or thousands fail simultaneously across several square miles of grid can produce damage effects in areas peripheral to the lethal footprint itself.

How easy are E-bombs to build?
Any nation with the technology to design and build a nuclear bomb will be capable of designing a non-nuclear E-bomb, and mass producing it. The main challenge for entrants into this game is having a sufficient pool of competent physicists to design devices like FCGs and Vircators. The technology to construct all of the components in such a bomb would be available in a 1950s university physics lab. With an accurate set of drawings, an FCG could be constructed in a suburban garage for several hundred dollars of cost in uncontrolled materials, other than the requirement for several kilograms of C4, Semtex or other high velocity castable explosive.

How likely is a terrorist E-bomb attack?
How likely is a tsunami, volcanic eruption, big solar flare or meteor impact? Given the pervasive use of highly interconnected digital infrastructure in developed nations and its resulting vulnerability to such attack, and the relative simplicity of such weapons technology, the use of such weapons is ultimately, inevitable. Determining how soon such weapons will be deployed by terrorists is a trickier proposition, since they tend to operate in secrecy. Once we see E-bombs deployed by military forces as standard tactical or strategic weapons, which will happen through this decade, the odds of a terrorist organisation acquiring them with or without the consent of the deploying nation go up enormously. With proven and robust weapon designs in circulation, terrorists then have the option of reverse engineering them or using them directly.

How can we protect ourselves from E-bombs?
The simple answer is electro-magnetic hardening of the infrastructure, which involves making digital equipment and power supplies "hardened" to resist high electrical fields, using optical fibres rather than metallic cables for network connections, and putting protection devices into antenna feeds and mains power interfaces. There is little point in this being done by individual home users since having a working computer without a working network or power grid is not very helpful. Hardening requires legislation to make it mandatory for all critical national infrastructure, spanning both government services and commercial service providers, across all industry sectors. Is this achievable? As the Y2K experience over a decade ago shows, the answer is yes. Will it be expensive? That depends on how the problem is tackled. If equipment is built hardened from the outset, the cost penalty may be as little as 10-20% of the build cost. Replacing copper networks with fibre will be costly, but it is also an impending necessity to get genuinely high data rates across national network infrastructures, and reduce urban/suburban background noise levels.

If nobody uses an E-bomb against us, is hardening a waste of time and money?
  This is the perennial question arising with all military technologies. If you do not deploy it, an enemy will, and will then use it to an advantage. If you do deploy protective measures, the enemy may be discouraged or deterred. In the case of electromagnetic hardening, there are other good reasons for putting it in. Annually insurance companies pay out considerable funds to compensate subscribers for electrical damage produced by lightning strikes and main power grid transient spikes. More importantly, we have observed in recent years several incidents in which solar weather variations produced significant mains grid outages over large areas, often with considerable electrical collateral damage. An unusually powerful event of this kind hitting the CONUS or EU could produce a major mess, on the scale of a nuclear EMP attack. Well designed hardening would thus not only protect against hostile governments, state sponsored terrorists, and free-lance terrorists, it would also protect against naturally arising electrical damage effects.

What can I do about overcoming this risk? The simple answer is to write to your local legislator, and do your best to educate them to the very real risks which unhardened infrastructure presents in an genuinely electromagnetically hostile environment. The electromagnetic weapons community has done this over and over again for nearly two decades, but has frequently not been listened to. Only the United States has draft legislation, yet to become law, dealing with aspects of this matter. Until the legislatures across developed nations understand this is a real risk, and not science fiction, the necessary legislation will not be produced, and if produced, will not become law. For better or worse,  legislators in democracies react primarily to the weight of numbers. Small numbers of researchers with PhDs will mostly be seen as less important than large numbers of concerned citizens, especially if the subject matter is esoteric and difficult to understand.

Further Reading:

Kopp, Carlo, The E-Bomb Threat and WMD Terrorism, Interview with Dr. Karen Carth for ISRIA, International Security Research & Intelligence Agency, 28th June, 2006.

Kopp, Carlo, A Doctrine for the Use of ElectroMagnetic Pulse Bombs, Air Power Studies Centre Paper No.15, Royal Australian Air Force, July 1993. (PDF 61691 bytes)

Kopp, Carlo, The E-Bomb - A Weapon of Electrical Mass Destruction, InfoWarCon 5 Conference Paper, Proceedings of InfoWarCon 5, NCSA, September 1996 (PPT).

Kopp, Carlo, The Electromagnetic Bomb - A Weapon of Electrical Mass Destruction, Air Chronicles Paper, USAF CADRE Air Chronicles, October 1996, Paper (HTML); Russian Translation Part 1 Part 2; Mirror@GlobalSecurity.org; Mirror@APA

Kopp, Carlo, An Introduction to the Technical and Operational Aspects of the Electromagnetic Bomb, Air Power Studies Centre Paper No.50, Royal Australian Air Force, November 1996. (PDF 394009 bytes)

Ertekin, Necati, E-Bomb: The Key Element of the Contemporary Military-Technical Revolution, MEng Thesis, Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, CA, September, 2008 (PDF).

Prischepenko, Alexander B., Video (Russian language): Electromagnetic Weapons: Myths and Reality, Popular Mechanics Seminar, November, 2010.

Kopp, Carlo, Hardening Your Computing Assets, Technical Report, posted on infowar.com, March 1997 [previously published in Open Systems Review, February, 1997]. (HTML)

Kopp, Carlo and Pose, Ronald, Electromagnetic Considerations for Computer System Design, Computer Architecture '97 Selected Papers of the 2nd Australasian Conference, Springer-Verlag Singapore Pte Ltd, Singapore, 269-287, 19pp.

Kopp, Carlo, Considerations on the Use of Airborne X-band Radar as a Microwave Directed-Energy Weapon, Journal of Battlefield Technology, vol 10, issue 3, Argos Press Pty Ltd, Australia, pp. 19-25.

Neuber, Andreas, Explosively driven pulsed power: helical magnetic flux compression generators, Google eBook, Springer Science & Business, 15/09/2005 - Science - 280 pages.

Benford, James, Swegle, John Allan,  Schamiloglu, Edl, High power microwaves, CRC Press, 05/02/2007 - Technology & Engineering - 531 pages.

Landecker, K.;   Skattebol, L.V.;   Gowdie, D.R.R., Single-spark ring transmitter, Proceedings of the IEEE, Volume: 59 Issue: 7, July, 1971, pp  1082 - 1090.

Kopp, Carlo, E-Bomb Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ), Technical Note, posted on GlobalSecurity.org, 2003.

Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack  /  Rep. Roscoe Bartlett on Electro Magnetic Pulse

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