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Improvised Electromagnetic Pulse Devices: Enabling Technologies and Skills

Part 2 of 4

Virtually everything in modern society today relies on computerized electronics, which means that any weapon capable of causing disruption in those devices, is potentially a major security threat. The possibilities and realities of the emerging threat from non-state actors using Improvised Electromagnetic Pulse Devices (IEMPDs) were explored in Part 1 of this series. Now it is time to look into the enabling technologies and the required expertise for design and construction of IEMPDs.

What kinds of design features would non-state actors want in an IEMPD to make it an operationally viable weapon? First, such a weapon need to be able to be concealed, or not recognized as a weapon in the first place. Another crucial factor is size, since it does a terrorist group or criminal gang little good if they have to transport something the size of a CONEX container to a planned detonation point next to the target. Low cost is another consideration, especially for homegrown domestic terror or criminal groups. Finally, using a radio frequency (RF) pulse, rather than microwaves, has tactical benefits as well.

There are various ways that non-state actors might, in theory, be able to build, and/or operate an IEMPD. Perhaps one of the easiest devices non-state actors could build is a Transient Electromagnetic Device (TED). TEDs have several advantages over atomic weapons, High-Power Microwave (HPM) devices, and so-called “E-bombs” for localized EMP attacks:

  • TEDs are not narrow band emitters like HPM devices. TEDs generate transient electromagnetic radiation, which is “a single spike-like form of energy,” much like electrostatic discharge. Electrostatic discharge into a computer circuit can cause a momentary break in the normal electrical flow, which can cause the computer to crash, or even “burn out” (destroy) its circuits, according to testimony delivered by David Schriner to a Congressional committee in 1998.
  • Many EMP devices only operate over a specific RF narrow band range, which limits their effects because they need to be fine tuned to the “weak spot” of the device or devices they are to disable. TEDs on the other hand, operate on a fairly wide spectrum, allowing them to hit any weak spot of the targeted device(s).
  • TEDs do not generate heat like HPM devices, because their high peak powers are in the RF range. This makes TEDs less dangerous to test and build than HPM devices, which emit microwaves that can be deadly, Schriner testified.

Schriner, a former U.S. Navy engineer, identified four possible IEMPD configurations that non-state actors could use to build a TED: (1) a briefcase-sized device that would be placed in close proximity to the target, (2) a device that could fit into a small van, (3) a not-so- disguised device that would be intended for use in a more remote location, (4) a device, “that could be located in one’s back yard such that it could be aimed at overflying aircraft,” to damage airborne systems.

Perhaps the most frightening fact is that is that one does not require a lab full of high tech equipment to build a TED. In fact, the tools needed are basic garage tools, and perhaps a small multipurpose lathe with a milling head (which costs from $700-$2,000). The total cost of building a briefcase-sized device could be as little as $300, and the building time has been estimated by some to be as little as a week. Perhaps the most troubling part of this entry into the world of EMP weaponry is that the parts required can be readily found in automotive shops, military surplus stores, and most well-stocked electronics shops.

The design information needed to build a TED is even easier to obtain, available in open source literature, and the device could be built by someone with an engineering degree, or an electronics technician with the right experience. Modeling such a device is also fairly simple, and the design could be tested on regular home computers to determine its effectiveness and tactical capabilities, according to Schriner’s testimony.

Such a very basic EMP device could easily be upgraded to a more powerful weapon with increased voltage and a higher repetition frequency (the two combined mean a more powerful pulse) by using a 6-foot TV satellite dish antenna and an upgraded spark-gap unit. To an untrained eye, the device would look very much like the average TV satellite dish system, and therefore would not cause much suspicion even if it were set up in an urban area and aimed at aircraft overhead.

The device could also be mounted on a van. The cost of the parts needed for the upgrade can be estimated as around $700, and it would take about two weeks to finish the upgrade. Testing of TEDs as described here, made from commercially available components, showed that they were effective and able to cause damage to military equipment. The device could therefore be deadly to many electronic systems at viable standoff ranges for terrorist attacks. Of course non-state actors could also work with scientists that are doing research on high-power microwaves to build an HPM device. But as mentioned earlier, there is a clear advantage in using a TED over an HPM device.

Another security concern is the possibility of “black market” HPM devices floating around. It is believed that the Soviet Union was able to build HPM devices as small as beer cans during the Cold War, and there are fears that inventories were not well-kept and effective security measures were lacking. It is also believed that North Korea and Cuba are developing EMP capabilities, and with North Korea’s track record in selling sensitive technologies, there is room for some serious concerns.

Continue to part 3…