Non-Nuclear EMP: Automating the Military May Prove a Real Threat

by Major Scott W. Merkle

How is this for a grand scenario?...One that would make an airborne assault with combat equipment, followed by a twenty-five-mile forced march sound enticing. You are the operations officer (S3) of your battalion and tomorrow you are to present your one-hundred-plus slide quarterly training brief (QTB) presentation, but for some unknown reason, all of the automation equipment on post is down. You hurry home to print it on your own PC, but your system is also down (and you just spent the whole weekend with that new income tax software working on your return).
You wonder...How could such a catastrophe occur? What could cause this to happen? Then you remember the movie that you saw this past weekend. About ruthless forces threatening to use a weapon capable of destroying the computer chips and memories upon which our lives depend. But one man stood in their way: "Bond... James Bond!"
Hollywood shenanigans? Implausible? Science fiction? The answers are yes, no, and maybe. The 007 saga "Goldeneye" is about attempts to prevent the neophyte, but dangerous, Russian Mafia from using an orbiting space weapon (called Goldeneye), which can blast uncooperative nations with pulses of energy, harmless to people but devastating to electronic devices and their components. Airplanes would fall from the skies, nuclear-power plants would race out of control, financial records would be erased, and your one-hundred-plus QTB slide presentation would be lost.
Could this actually happen? The fact is, that today, there is technology available that could do just that. Fortunately, international treaties governing the use of outer space and the availability of the simpler, non-nuclear-pulse weapons make the specifics from the "Goldeneye" scenario improbable. Then again, the military has earned a reputation for falsely labeling as fiction advanced weapons and units already within its arsenals; remember the Pentagon's embarrassment when surprisingly accurate models of its supposedly super-secret stealth-fighter aircraft began appearing at your local toy store?

Real EMP Weapons

In reality, the existence of Goldeneye-like pulse weapons first became a fact in the early 1960s. While testing hydrogen bombs in outer space, hundreds of miles above the planet, American and Soviet scientists discovered that each atomic blast created a pulse of electromagnetic energy similar to conventional radio-made microwaves, but with energy so great that they erased magnetic memories and melted the microscopic junctions in transistors on the Earth below. These were veritable tidal waves of energy, sufficient to cripple sensitive microelectronics but too weak to be seen, heard, or felt by human beings.1 During one U.S. test, in July 1962, a hydrogen bomb was detonated approximately 650 miles in space, roughly where today's space shuttles orbit. Simultaneously, 2100 miles to the northeast, street lights went dark and burglar alarms began ringing on the Hawaiian islands. The reason was an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) produced by the blast.2
Due to this reaction, in 1963 the United States and the Soviet Union signed the Atmospheric Test Ban Treaty to counter the considerable threat posed by EMPs. Since then, that threat has grown at a fantastic rate, fueled by the rapid progress made in compacting ever more EMP-sensitive transistors onto the computer chips upon which modern electronics rely.3 Can you imagine your neighbor being able to go down to the local radio parts store, buy a hand-held EMP weapon, and use it to wipe out your household electronics? All because he is angry at you.
According to a declassified U.S. military report, the explosion of a bomb about one megaton in size (the exact size remains classified) eight hundred miles over Omaha, Nebraska, would shower the continental United States, southern Canada, and northern Mexico with an EMP capable of disabling virtually every computerized circuit in its path. Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb, succinctly described the damaging consequences of such an EMP attack in 1982, when he wrote in an obscure engineering journal
Today there is almost universal dependence on electronic computers. They are used by first-graders as well as research engineers. Industry, communications, financial records, are all at stake here. In the event of heavy EMP radiation, I suspect it would be easier to enumerate the apparatus that would continue to function than the apparatus that would stop.4
Are you now beginning to reconsider that purchase of the latest superhot mini-tower PC? Relax. It is unlikely that a nuclear blast will occur in space any time soon. The Outer-Space Treaty of 1967, since ratified by the members of the United Nations, explicitly states that treaty partners not place any objects carrying nuclear weapons in Earth's orbit great idea, in principle. The trouble is, the treaty does not oblige any nation to allow others to inspect the cargo they send into space.5 So, if Iraq obtained nuclear weapons and was capable of launching them into a space orbit around the Earth for detonation over the United States (in revenge of Operation DESERT STORM), you could kiss your fancy E-mail system goodbye.

The Non-Nuclear EMP Threat

So, to this extent, the plot of "Goldeneye" is plausible. Any of several nations with nuclear weapons and the capacity to launch them into space including the United States, Russia, China, and even Israel could conceivably pulse us back to, shall we say, a simpler time when operations orders were done orally with a sandtable, instead of with the high-speed graphics and charts that turn into an encyclopedia that few people care to read. Even more unsettling, however, is the fact that the U.S. Defense Technology Plan confirms that development of advanced EMP weapons continues to this day, and not just by the Americans. According to a report drafted by conservative members of the French National Assembly in 1992, EMP weapons testing was a recommended goal during France's 1995 underground nuclear tests.6
Some really scary parts of the EMP story did not make it into James Bond's latest adventure. Weapons designers specializing in high-energy physics can now create electromagnetic pulses without going into outer space. One approach involves harnessing the force of a conventional explosion. Others are simply just modifications of radar, which bounces pulses of energy off aircraft in flight, vehicles on the ground, and other objects.7 Crank up the power and you have an EMP weapon, ready to point at the computers of your favorite enemy.
This knowledge has set off a new arms race. Whether fitted into cruise missiles or parked at the side of the road in a van, non-nuclear EMP weapons have the potential to devastate the electronic systems of areas as large as a city or as small as a selected building, all without being seen, heard, or felt by a single soul.8 It is a dream come true for any and all terrorists, to include Saddam Hussein himself!
Sound far-fetched? It did not in 1993 to the owners of automobiles parked about 300 meters from a U.S. Defense Contractor's EMP generator test site at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. Their alternators and electronic engine controls were accidentally fried by a pulse during classified field trials.9

Specific Threatto the Military

So what is the non-nuclear EMP threat to our military today? It is, put simply, that while we are quite enamored of our technological progress, we would do well to ensure that basic infantry skills, those things that have enabled America to have the greatest army in the world, are not forgotten. It can be readily observed that the United States is devoting a significant amount of time, energy, and hard working tax-payer dollars to "push the technology envelope" to prepare for the Force XXI battlefield.
The Army will equip tomorrow's infantry soldier with a totally integrated fighting system that takes full advantage of technological advances. Their fighting load modules include vests with removable ammunition pouches enabling them to carry the soldier radio, battlefield computer, global positioning system (GPS), and required antennas. One burst of EMP will render this equipment inoperable, rendering the 21st century land warrior ineffective on the Force XXI battlespace. He will still be able to fight, but without his wondrous gadgets and gizmos.


Therefore, it seems to me that while developing and implementing technologies and strategies for the Force XXI battlespace, we also need to emphasize force modernization in developing technologies and strategies to counter the EMP threat. It is even more important that our junior leaders and soldiers become and remain exceptionally proficient in basic skills of land navigation, small unit tactics, and sandtable operations and operations orders. I would not discard that Ranger handbook just yet. At the battalion level, I recommend that the battalion intelligence officer keep those grease pencils, templates, and manual weather forecasting equipment handy because the Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System, All-Source Analysis System, and most other "high tech" intelligence connectivity systems will not be working.
In sum, while I advocate taking full advantage of any and all technologies that will enhance our ability to fight and win America's battles, we must not lose sight of one essential fact. Gadgets and gizmos do not take and hold terrain, nor do they fight and win on the battlefield well-trained soldiers do! Non-nuclear EMP has the potential to reduce the battlefield equation to very simple terms. I submit that in this scenario, "back to basics" becomes more than a simple clich‚. Stripped of the technology, the soldier who is well versed in basic soldiering skills will be victorious.
One thing is certain: in case of an EMP attack, don't bother calling James Bond. Your telephone won't be working.


1. Harry Gefen, Mind & Matter , The Globe and Mail, (9 December 1995), D-8.
2. Ibid, D-8.
3. Ibid, D-8.
4. Ibid, D-8.
5. Ibid, D-8.
6. Ibid, D-8.
7. Ibid, D-8.
8. Ibid, D-8.
9. Ibid, D-8.
Major Merkle is a student assigned to the Air Command and General Staff College, Maxwell Air Force Base, Montgomery, Alabama. He has served in numerous intelligence positions such as Assistant S2 and S5, 1st Ranger Battalion; Assistant S2 and Special Security Officer, 75th Ranger Regiment; and S2, 3d Ranger Battalion. Major Merkle is a graduate of Glassboro State College in New Jersey and holds a bachelor of arts degree in Geography. Readers can contact him via E-mail at