Defense Media Network

Improvised Electromagnetic Pulse Devices: Operational Concepts and Targets

Part 3 of 4

The threat of non-state actors using Improvised Electromagnetic Pulse Devices (IEMPDs), discussed in Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, covered the emerging threat, technological aspects and enabling technologies for IEMPDs. Part 3 will explore the operational concepts and possible targets by laying out scenarios in which non-state actors (terrorist groups, criminal gangs) could use Transient Electromagnetic Devices (TEDs) to advance their cause.

TEDs can cause harm on all frequencies and can therefore be more effective than other Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) devices. TEDs are also easier and safer to make for someone with basic engineering knowledge. However, the downside of all EMP weapons is that there is no guarantee that they will work as planned, since the ability to test the devices is limited.

There are quite a few targets that various non-state actors might choose to attack with TEDs, including commercial aircraft. A small briefcase-sized TED could be used onboard an airplane by a terrorist to bring it down, given that the operator would be committed enough to die as well.

Bringing a TED device into an airport and through security would not be impossible, since airport TSA officials are mainly looking for prepared commercial or military grade explosive materials. One means of getting the TED onto an aircraft being protected by organizations like the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) might be for several terrorists to bring component parts or materials in separately. These could them be assembled or mixed in a lavatory prior to activation. This method of delivery would be tougher for TSA or security forces to detect, since it is not uncommon for technicians and sales representatives to travel with electronic equipment in their “carry-on” or as checked-in luggage.

If the TED was checked, the terrorist could simply set the device off via remote control from their seat after the plane had set off. The terrorist might not even need to be aboard the plane, and could use a similar technology to the one used to start cars via smartphones. The airplane’s avionics could be interrupted and perhaps permanently damaged. This would be particularly effective against aircraft with computerized “fly-by-wire” control systems like those built by Airbus, or the new model Boeings. Even a short-duration “flicker” in such avionics systems might cause the airplane to go out of control or crash.

Another way to deliver an Improvised Electromagnetic Pulse Device would be a TED mounted inside a small van, which could be used to take out all electronic devices in a building. For a group that wanted to perhaps harm the U.S. and global economy, “frying” all computers, servers, and routers at the exchanges on Wall Street (and their backups in New Jersey) could very well achieve that goal. Vans deployed with TEDs could be parked outside main trading centers and server farms, then set off simultaneously in an attempt to take down the data processing hardware in the buildings. If successful it could cause billions of dollars in losses, especially if recovery efforts took more than a few days. Whatever the duration of the outage, the “shock and awe” effects on financial markets worldwide would be significant.

The same method could be used to shut down U.S. government facilities such as IRS centers during tax season. Hypothetically, an anti-IRS group might choose that method to protest the IRS and “big government,” and could even gain support for their cause because the nature of the attack does not inflict casualties, with the possible exception of those with pacemakers, and attacks the IRS and the tax process directly.

EMP devices such as TEDs might also be used in conjunction with cyber attacks as a method of cyberterrorism, as mentioned in Part 1, with IEMPDs taking down the air traffic control (ATC) systems at airports as well as nearby aircraft in conjunction with cyber attacks conducted against other airports’ ATC systems.

These are only a few examples of how non-state actors could use IEMPDs to their advantage. It is therefore important that policy makers are aware of the threat and take actions to harden electronics in core infrastructures. In addition, law enforcement and other Homeland Security forces are going to have to add IEMPDs to their list of things to be educated on, and on the lookout for. Part 4 of this series will deal with possible IEMPD detection and countermeasures.

Continue to part 4…

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-15015">

    Interesting piece Vera and John. In your research did either of you come across any information on the negative potential affects of EMP on the Navy’s new EMALS catapult system?

    When up at Lakehurst a few weeks ago for the EMALS article I wrote, I asked the Program Manager if the system was secured against EMP and he could not/would not give me an answer, saying that he didn’t know but that the folks at NAVSEA could give me an answer. Seems to me like a pretty basic question.

    I haven’t gotten ’round to asking NAVSEA yet but am curious if either of you had heard anything in this regard? Thanks again for an informative article.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-22964">
    Vera Knutsdottir

    Hi Eric,

    No I didn’t come across anything in regards to the EMALS catapult system. It is a standard that the military does have some hardening measures against EMP attacks and it could be classified as well.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-73347">

    All this sounds like a James Bond Movie.

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-chuck-oldham odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-73912">


    I know, but it’s all possible. The devil is in the details, however, and you would have to have big, or very efficient device placed in exactly the right place, and one hopes that the claims of widely scattered, redundant servers would safeguard most of the more important data. A nuclear explosion a few hundred kilometers above the earth pumping a massive EMP pulse, however, is scarier. But I’m afraid there has been relatively little preparation or hardening of systems, including the electrical grid, in case of such a scenario. Many think no one would contemplate such a strike because our networks and economies are so interlinked that such an attack would cause massive collateral damage to other nations, but then that would suggest that such an attack could only come from another nation. How many countries have ballistic missiles today? How many nuclear warheads are unaccounted for? How many nations have programs to build nukes right now? It’s not comforting.