I Advised NCIS: LA On 'E-Bombs' But They're Not A Work Of Fiction

In last week's episode of NCIS: Los Angeles on Channel Ten, the program's protagonists try to locate a stolen electromagnetic bomb before detonation. I know this, because I was the scientific advisor for this episode. While NCIS: LA, and shows like it, are clearly works of fiction, these "E-bombs" are very real and the use of such a device in a major city truly would be devastating.

This is a guest post from Carlo Kopp, Lecturer in Computer Science and Monash University Melbourne. Lead image: A rooftop ‘E-bomb’ could wreak havoc on critical infrastructure and electronic devices nearby. Photo by Shane Brennan Productions

That’s because of the pervasive use of high-density electronic chips – built from silicon, gallium arsenide and other materials – and found in consumer and industrial goods. Mobile phones, tablets, computers, computer network routers, embedded equipment (in consumer, government or industrial equipment) and transportation systems all share this common, basic technology.

If exposed to very high electrical or electromagnetic field strengths, such chips can suffer temporary upsets, permanent damage, delayed damage or immediate failure. Any event, natural or man-made, which can produce such conditions, could cause a large-scale “cascading failure” – spreading through power grids and copper network cables – across the urban infrastructure of any developed nation.

The ever-increasing reliance on distributed computing and networked applications adds a further dimension to the problem. Remote servers downed through such events could cripple networked software applications across much larger geographical footprints.

In addition to man-made E-bombs, there are a number of other potential sources for high-energy electromagnetic effects. Numerous well-documented instances exist in recent years of large-scale electrical grid damage in the northern hemisphere arising as a result of solar storms.

Such perturbation of the earth’s magnetic field will cause induction effects in electrical power lines, causing outages or damage to electrical and electronic equipment across large geographical areas.

And then there are the more severe effects that can be produced by detonating a high-yield nuclear warhead in the upper atmosphere. This is known as the high-altitude electromagnetic pulse (HEMP) effect.

Cold War-era nuclear war strategists often planned for the use of HEMP warheads as an “opening round” tactic, to cripple an opponent’s battle management systems before deluging them with hundreds of nuclear warheads. In fact, such weapons have been deployed by nuclear armed nations for decades now.

The wide use of digital equipment in military systems has stimulated the global development of non-nuclear electromagnetic weapons. Numerous designs are now approaching sufficient maturity for operational use.

The largest of these E-bombs can produce disruption or damage effects across many square kilometres. As they are not nuclear (and qualify as “non-lethal” under most treaties) there are no traditional disincentives to their use. Once such weapons become “standard” munitions in operational warstocks, it is only a matter of time before terrorists gain access via theft, or direct state sponsorship.

Any nation with the skills-base to develop and build nuclear weapons can design non-nuclear electromagnetic bombs. This fact alone makes a compelling case for legislation to make protective measures mandatory for all vulnerable infrastructure. Indeed, some baby steps have been taken.

In mid-2010, the House of Representatives in the US Congress unanimously passed a bill known as the GRID Act (H.R. 5026). The bill was intended:

“To amend the Federal Power Act to protect the bulk-power system and electric infrastructure critical to the defense of the United States from cybersecurity and other threats and vulnerabilities”.

Unfortunately, the bill subsequently stalled in the Senate and its future remains unclear, particularly after the Senate replaced it with a bill on “clean energy”. This is of major concern, because the GRID Act would have done a lot to protect US infrastructure from dangerous electromagnetic events, including man-made E-bombs.

In part the intent of the bill was to introduce “hardening” of the infrastructure so that equipment and systems were capable of surviving the damage effects of solar storms, nuclear and non-nuclear EMP. This would impose a legal obligation upon providers to replace vulnerable hardware as required, but was limited to “critical” infrastructure (such as emergency service networks) and did not mandate hardening of consumer products.

While electromagnetic effects produced by nature (through solar storms) are the most likely (and most pressing) reason to introduce protective legislation, critics have focused almost exclusively on the least-probable, man-made causes of catastrophic damage.

This has proven to be an effective political tactic, as it presents “infrastructure hardening” as an “uncertain” need (“is a man-made E-bomb attack really going to happen?”) thus permitting legislation with a perceived “certain” need – a “clean energy” bill – to be substituted instead.

It is best-practice in modern risk management to consider both the probability of uncertain events, and the damaging consequences, and to accord a high priority to events of low probability which yield catastrophic consequences. What makes for good legislative debating tactics makes for very dangerous, if not irresponsible, risk management or mitigation practice.

Nature cares not for clever political debating tactics.

The lack of support for the US GRID legislation shows there is little (if any) public, political or mass media understanding of the risks being taken with public safety by integrating increasing numbers of critical services into an infrastructure which is increasingly vulnerable to broad disruption. Such critical services include emergency services, health information services, financial data processing, water and sewage processing, but also retail distribution of food.

If you were a cynic you might observe that a tsunami or Pearl Harbour-scale event might be the only way for the importance of this matter to become widely accepted.

Academic and government research in this area was well funded during the Cold War, reflecting Soviet threats to use nuclear HEMP weapons against NATO nations. This is no longer the case, and this research area is frequently regarded as “non-mainstream”, if not an eccentric indulgence by a very small research community.

The sad truth is that denying the importance of this vulnerability will not make it go away. At the same time, the risk of an eventual major catastrophe will incrementally grow as the infrastructure becomes ever-more-dependent on high-density chips, networks and distributed software.

So if you happen to be watching NCIS: LA, reflect upon the fact that fiction and truth sometimes have a lot in common. And that’s not always for the best.

This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.

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    Interesting, if somewhat long winded article! Seems to me, given the slow weekend of other articles, that it is more page filler, than of any real significance. Particularly seeing that if it was to eventuate, there is very little I or anyone else could do about it! Why is there so few articles this weekend by the way?

      If you think this was long winded you should be glad you never had to sit through one of his lectures.

    The few episodes I have seen of the NCIS programs suggested they didn't use any kind of advisers as the technical side of the shows was laughable.

    I was under the impression that non Nuke Emp bombs had a relatively short range ie 100's of meters?

    Still my favourite NCIS scene:


    Strange that Carlo Kopp has zero credibility in Defence and Government circles.

    How silly. Yes, in THEORY an E-bomb could be a big problem, everyone knows that, but I personally do not know of any actual working models. I've never, ever heard of any. So I think they are indeed, works of fiction at this stage. ;)

    Yes, you could generate on with a nuclear blast but... The blast would be more effective.And there was a lot of rubbish about e-bombs being used against the Serbs in Kosovo and against the Iranians, but that was all it was; rubbish.

      A high altitude nuclear detonation could be enough to set of an EMP and could wipe out a large area without causing too much damage from the nuke itself.

      I remember watching a documentary about EMP's and it was believed that both the yanks and the soviets had a working EMP device or were both working on such a device.

    Speculation follows: All your need is a van de graaff machine. A science education facility near me accidentally turned theirs on outside of the faraday cage and crashed every computer for about 3 city blocks--and that was 20 years ago. Build a bigger machine...fast forward to today, and you could cause some mischief. (put it in the back of van and drive around for added effect). Of course, maybe it was just a hoax, but that rumour has been going around for a while. Computers are probably much more resilient than back then also.

    While i do see a need for this i think the more sever of the outcomes of the two catastrophes would have been a natural green related disaster. We can always recover as a species from an emp.

    I don't see a need for this at all really, sure it might knock out stuff inside the radius that isn't hardened, but i can't see it being crippling to an entire armed forces at once.
    Emp goes off, bring in new gear, the enemy can't be inside the radius either without hardened gear, and that would be noticed before the emp blast.
    Not to mention, it doesn't kill anyone, nor stop the bullet firing guns from working.
    Any gap in defence from an emp blast could be covered very quickly by air forces and long range weapons more than likely.
    There are so many reasons why it would be a waste of time compared to actually destroying stuff inside the target radius.

    So sure, lets waste a ton of money , time and brains coming up with ways to protect against something that is even more unlikely to happen than an unanounced nuclear strike.... seems like a GREAT idea, lmfao

      Modern war fighting is no longer about killing all of the army, its about destroying an army's ability to fight. This is often best accomplished by destroying that army's command , control and communications, as well as their logistics chain.

      An EMP devices goal isn't to necessarily to destroy everything in radius X. A modern fighting force is effectively useless without command and control, an EMP device could efficiently disrupt the command and control of nations without sufficiently hardened electronics.

      Also, the non-lethal characteristics of an EMP blast could be seen as a positive property of such a weapon. A high value target could be surround by human shields and civilians (like we've seen in the last year in Libya), If the target is susceptible to an EMP, it could be neutralised without the loss of life or Hearts and Minds.

      In a world where computers are becoming an integral part of everything, an EMP device could be extremely effective at disrupting business and services. Also since the device doesn't have to be directly next to the target, simplifies putting it where it can do the most damage. What would happen if a EMP device was detonated a few hundred meters away from a stock exchange.

      The Exchange would be crippled and would send other markets into a spin from the shear panic. Worst of all, since the device was located away from the exchange, it wouldn't have to have passed all the security checks etc. to get into the exchange its self, simplifying the task for the belligerent party.

      There is no silver bullet weapon. Rather a balanced and diverse arsenal gives a large range of options. I for one see the benefits of an EMP weapon being in that arsenal.

        Well of course the only copy of the data in a nations stock exchange is onsite with no backup right?
        Can't really see what sheer panic in other countries exchanges is going to do either, they can't do anything about it, chances are the other exchanges would be frozen.

        At any rate, it really doesn't seem like a viable small nation against big nation weapon to me, since they need to back it up with force in the end anyway.

    I want a tiny one so that I can go about disabling all the parking meters in my local shopping precinct.


    On another note, this is from Carlo Kopp, the bloke that wanted Australia to buy 150 Mmillion dollar F-22's that the US won't sell us, would be much more difficult to maintain and that don't drop the bombs we want to drop.

    An EMP bomb would be a great way for a regime to take dissidents and journalists of the grid before a brutal crackdown. Especially since their electronics wouldn't be hardened.

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