A large number of well-known films have included electromagnetic pulse (EMP), including the ones listed above. According to these movies, electromagnetic pulse (EMP) is the pinnacle of technological warfare; it can send entire cities or nations tumbling back in time by destroying all electric and electronic circuits inside its blast radius.
Do we actually have access to such a terrifying weapon, or is it all an elaborate hoax meant to make us jump for joy whenever our wifi goes down? Surprisingly, electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapons exist; but, their design, usage, and capabilities differ greatly from the Hollywood portrayal.
Several natural events, such as lightning strikes, meteorites, solar flares, and coronal mass ejections, can produce electromagnetic pulses, which are intense bursts of electromagnetic radiation. The wiring inside the device functions like a radio antenna, and the strong electric currents induced by these pulses cause damage to the electrical and electronic components.
The circuit’s susceptible components are subsequently overwhelmed by this current. Solar flares are capable of wreaking havoc on electrical infrastructure, in contrast to the usually modest and short-lived impacts of EMPs caused by lightning. Telegraph poles sparked and telegraph operators received electric shocks through their headphones in 1859 as a result of the Carrington Event, a huge coronal mass ejection that knocked out telegraph networks globally.
In some regions, the electromagnetic pulse could even power telegraphs, meaning they didn’t need batteries. If this had happened today, the world’s electrical infrastructure would be far more advanced than it is now; thankfully, it happened when telegraph networks were the only option. Solar flares of such scale have thankfully not occurred since Carrington, though one in 2012 almost avoided Earth by just 9 days.
Several nations have been conducting research into electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapons since the 1950s because, in this digital age, an assaulting army would have a significant tactical advantage if they could instantaneously disrupt an enemy’s electrical infrastructure. Nuclear and non-nuclear EMP weapons are the two main types. The powerful burst of gamma radiation released by a nuclear explosion depletes the electrons in the air, leading to a nuclear EMP.
In a process called a Compton Current, these unbound electrons travel through the Earth’s magnetic field and produce a strong electromagnetic field. Italian physicist Enrico Fermi ordered all instruments monitoring the July 16, 1945, Trinity Test—the world’s first nuclear detonation—to be double-shielded to protect them from damage, as scientists on the Manhattan Project—the WWII effort to build the first atomic bomb—anticipated this phenomenon.
The electromagnetic pulse (EMP) produced by a nuclear explosion on the ground, however, is weak and has a short range, rendering it mostly useless because the blast itself destroys any electronic equipment it manages to disable. Free electrons can’t travel very far before being dispersed at low altitudes due to the strong atmospheric density and weak magnetic field, which limits the strength of the EMP that may be produced. Detonating nuclear bombs at very high altitudes, when the atmosphere is thinner and the earth’s magnetic field is stronger, is necessary to produce an EMP that is both powerful and effective.
In 1958, during the 35 nuclear tests conducted in the South Pacific Marshall Islands as part of Operation Hardtack I, this phenomenon was initially noticed. Yucca, Teak, and Orange were the codenames given to the three tests that were carried out at elevated locations. On April 28, 1958, the helium-borne 1.7 kiloton Yucca device was set off at 26 kilometers in the air, while on July 31, and August 11, the 3.8 megaton Orange and Teak devices were set off at 76 and 41 kilometers in the air, respectively, by Redstone ballistic missiles.
The goals of these experiments were to find out how well nuclear explosions at high altitudes could defend against enemy ballistic missiles and how communications equipment would handle the resultant electromagnetic pulse. The EMP caused significant damage to scientific instruments and exceeded forecasts by more than five times, which was a very concerning outcome.
Nevertheless, the most impressive display of EMP’s power occurred four years later during Operation Fishbowl, an additional set of nuclear tests conducted in the South Pacific at great altitudes. Designed to investigate the feasibility of constructing an artificial radiation ring around the planet to deactivate enemy nuclear bombs upon re-entry into the atmosphere, these tests were carried out at considerably greater altitudes than the Hardtack series. Fired fourteen minutes after being lifted into the air by a Thor ballistic missile on July 9, 1962, the 1.4 megaton Starfish Prime went off some one hundred kilometers above Johnston Island. Radiation from the explosion lit up the sky with brilliant, multicolored aurora, and the detonation’s brightness was so intense that it could be seen through dense cloud cover in Hawaii, which was 1,500 kilometers away.
However, similar to the Operation Hardtack trials, Starfish Prime’s EMP output was far more powerful than anticipated, causing widespread damage to Hawaii’s electrical grid. There was significant damage to the microwave telephone relay cables connecting the Hawaiian Islands, the activation of burglar alarms, and the knockout of over 300 streetlights. The pulse also damaged numerous scientific instruments, ships, and aircraft that were watching the test. Even though the US military has never officially acknowledged what happened, Hawaii residents quickly linked the recent nuclear test to the abrupt outage. Several spacecraft were damaged, including Telstar 1, the first telecommunications satellite, and Ariel, the first satellite of the United Kingdom. For more information on this, please watch our video That Time the U.S. Destroyed Britain’s First Satellite Recklessly.
The Soviet Union followed suit with a series of high-altitude nuclear tests two months later, producing similarly shocking outcomes. This testing, codenamed “Project K,” began at the missile production site at Kapustin Yar and ended in the Sary Shagan Test Range after the warheads had traveled across densely populated central Kazakhstan.
On October 22, 1962, the largest of these tests—Test 184—took place, with a 300-kiloton warhead going off at a height of 290 kilometers. Soviet scientists prepared a 570 km stretch of telephone line for the test by instrumenting it and securing it with dozens of fuses and gas-filled overvoltage protectors. Notwithstanding these safeguards, Test 184’s EMP produced enormous currents of up to 3400 amperes, causing the cable to ignite and blowing out all of the overvoltage protectors and fuses. In addition to destroying the Karaganda power plant, the pulse also caused an electrical fire, which cut power to 1,000 kilometers of subterranean lines connecting Astana and Almata. The Soviets never officially acknowledged it, but everyone believes the explosion damaged the neighboring Baikonur Cosmodrome; after all, no mission could be launched from there for over two months after the test. Additionally, the human orbital flights of Vostok 5 and 6, which were initially planned for November 1962, were also unexpectedly delayed and would not take off until a full seven months later.
Despite their tremendous destructive potential, nuclear explosions from great heights are not the most practical or diplomatic way to launch an EMP strike. A lot of studies looking for alternatives to nuclear EMP have been spurred by this. From a technical standpoint, creating an EMP is not too difficult; all it takes is a powerful capacitor bank to store and release electricity, together with a specifically built antenna to produce and guide the pulse. The Air Force Weapons Lab Transmission-Line Aircraft Simulator, or ATLAS I, built in 1975 close to Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico, is one of the most remarkable instances of such a non-nuclear EMP generator.
The 120-meter-long and 36-meter-tall “Trestle” platform can handle the weight of a fully-laden B-52 Stratofortress bomber and was built to test the resistance of military aircraft against nuclear electromagnetic pulse (EMP). Two electromagnetic pulse (EMP) generators can simulate the consequences of a nuclear explosion by subjecting the test plane to 200 Gigawatts of electromagnetic energy, which would satisfy Doc Brown. Surprisingly, the whole platform is constructed exclusively from woodworking joints and glue, without the use of nails, screws, or bolts, since metal might contaminate the test outcomes. Still standing as the world’s largest all-wooden construction, it consumed 6.4 million board feet of lumber.
The ATLAS I’s EMP generators, among others, are cumbersome, making them impractical as weaponry. Luckily, explosively pumped flux compression generators provide a more space-efficient option. These devices, which were initially proposed in the 1950s by Soviet nuclear physicist Andrei Sakharov, transform the chemical energy of regular explosives into strong, rapid electromagnetic pulses. A flux compression generator that is explosively pumped is, in its most basic form, a wire coil encased in an explosive shell. An electromagnetic field is generated just before firing by charging the coil with a bank of capacitors.
Then, the explosives are set off, which causes the coil and magnetic flux to be compressed in milliseconds, producing an electromagnetic pulse with a power of up to 1000 Tesla, which is 200,000 times stronger than a typical refrigerator magnet. It also destroys the device, which is a shame. Theoretically, explosively-pumped flux compression generators—originally developed for fusion and plasma physics research—could be transformed into EMP weapons small enough to be transported by a missile, air-dropped bomb, or even a terrorist-built vehicle. Movies like Ocean’s 11 and
The Fate of the Furious uses similar gadgets. The effective range of such weapons is measured in hundreds of meters, which is incredibly limited in comparison to a nuclear EMP. When detonated near a power plant, substation, or other critical component of electrical infrastructure, however, such a precision weapon could still destroy a whole city, even though it could only target small regions like individual buildings.
How Much Harm Are These Weapons Capable of Causing, and Are We Vulnerable to Renegade EMP Strikes?
Nuclear EMP may severely harm electrical systems, as shown by the high-altitude nuclear testing of the 1950s and 1960s. The susceptibility of electrical systems has only grown since we shifted from vacuum tubes to solid-state electronics. The Starfish Prime test did a lot of damage, but it might have been much worse if Hawaii’s electrical system hadn’t been so old-fashioned and sturdy in comparison to today’s. This is why many pieces of military hardware throughout the Cold War era relied on vacuum tube technologies that were resistant to electromagnetic pulses (EMPs) to the end.
Ironically, many NATO systems relied on Soviet tubes because Russia was and is the world’s leading manufacturer of small vacuum tubes. The damage from an EMP would not be as fine-grained as it appears in the movies, even if it could disable every electrical circuit down to a wristwatch. Long conductors, such as power lines, are necessary for the longer-lasting E3 pulse, which causes the majority of EMP damage.
Due to the absence of these lengthy conductors, small gadgets such as cell phones and wristwatches will probably remain unharmed. Cars would probably also be exempt because their metal bodies partially screen them and they don’t have lengthy conductors either.