Just how fragile is the amazing high-tech world we have created? According to the worst of worst-case estimates, delivered by former cyber-security CEO John McAfee, an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) strike against our technology could kill 90 percent of the American population.
McAfee’s doomsday warning is related by the UK Daily Mail in its story about a new report from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, entitled “Winning the Airwaves: Sustaining America’s Advantage in the Electronic Spectrum.”
The report is not solely concerned with the sort of apocalyptic EMP strike feared by McAfee, and depicted in horrific detail in author William Forstchen’s bestselling novel One Second After. An EMP bomb is a modified nuclear weapon, detonated at high altitude, which emits a massive pulse of electromagnetic energy, permanently frying every electronic device across a large blast area.
Granted, losing your smartphone and Fitbit seems considerably less horrible than being incinerated by a conventional nuclear attack, but there are a few reasons to be particularly concerned about EMP weapons. The enormous area of effect from a single bomb means a very small number of warheads, perhaps easier to deploy than regular nukes, could paralyze the entire continental United States. The loss of life would be horrendous – everyone in an airplane at the moment of destination would be making a swift unscheduled landing – and the economic damage would be incalculable.
Even a very small EMP attack in a strategic location – say, Wall Street – could have repercussions lasting for decades. A big one could leave our vast, machine-dependent nation struggling to feed itself. McAfee did not come up with that 90 percent casualty estimate himself; it was presented to Congress in a May 2014 hearing by Peter Vincent Pry, executive director of the Task Force on National and Homeland Security and a former CIA nuclear-weapons analyst. Pry testified that a single EMP bomb could wreak that kind of havoc, and North Korea appears to be working on such weapons. Equally alarming is the possibility that a natural phenomenon, solar storms, could inflict similar damage across the world.)
The CSBA report is more broadly concerned with EMS (electromagnetic systems) warfare, which includes many smaller and more insidious tactics designed to mess with enemy computer systems. Military forces are now highly computerized; the CSBA compares it to the revolution smartphones and the Internet have brought to the private sector. Weapons designed to baffle sensor equipment and distort communications have grown commensurately more effective.
According to the “Winning the Airwaves” report, the U.S. is losing the airwaves. In short, the authors believe the United States failed to make the necessary investments in EMS technology after the end of the Cold War, a pause which “provided China, Russia, and other rivals with an opportunity to field systems that target vulnerabilities in sensor and communication networks the U.S. military has come to depend on.” As a result, we are on the verge of losing our qualitative edge in EMS warfare, or may have lost it already.
For example, Russia, China, and other adversaries have “fielded radars that operate outside the frequency range of U.S. jammers, and developed their own jammers that are capable of targeting frequencies used by U.S. sensors and radios.” They have also deployed “large, complex sensor arrays that outrange most sensors carried by U.S. power projection forces.”
The report breaks the long history of EMS warfare, which goes back to primitive radios and radar, into a series of distinct phases. Through the early stages of World War II, it was a competition between active networks and passive countermeasures – for example, listening for enemy radio transmissions to track their deployments. It was very difficult to jam enemy communications without impeding friendly radios, as well. That changed with the development of active countermeasures, such as sophisticated communications jammers and chaff to confuse radar targeting. By the Vietnam War, it was possible to electronically attack enemy early-warning and fire-control systems before physical bombs were dropped.
Next came the advent of “stealth” technology, including both the famed stealth fighters and bombers, plus low-power communications and passive sensors that could do their jobs without giving away their own position. These were rightly regarded as amazing technological breakthroughs, but a new phase in EMS warfare is beginning, and the CSBA fears the United States has not made adequate preparations for a more “agile” contest, in which the same systems function as both sensors and jammers, while very low-power communications networks become virtually invisible to enemy detection.
Among the problems with shifting America’s EMS strategy cited in the report are the cost of upgrading a huge amount of older equipment used by our military, the regulatory hurdles imposed by our regulation-happy civilian government, and the challenge of projecting American power across vast oceans against adversaries with a “home field advantage.” The latter provides a significant edge in the new phase of agile EMS warfare, because it is exceptionally difficult to built sophisticated multi-role equipment that is also small enough to carry across large distances and deploy quickly.
Fortunately, all is not lost. “Winning the Airwaves” concludes with some encouraging suggestions for getting the U.S. military back on top of the game. Our incredibly powerful computers should allow us to create sensory networks that can do a lot with very little hard data, taking advantage of quiet, passive sensors to assemble comprehensive pictures of enemy movement. We should also be able to devise effective measures and counter-measures against the latest enemy equipment quickly. In fact, we have the ability to create systems that can adapt in real time, analyzing and defeating enemy EMS weapons soon after encountering them for the first time.
The watchword deployed by the report is “low-to-no power.” We can become quieter than any adversary force, emitting less radiation and giving them nothing to target with their own sophisticated systems. And when enemy systems reveal themselves, American EMS platforms must be agile enough to immediately blind or confuse them.
In fact, the highest level of EMS warfare is focused battlefield EMP – a swift and precise rapier, instead of the crude nation-smashing cudgel of the classic EMP doomsday bomb. The UK Daily Mail mentions successful tests of one such weapon system, a test that was so successful it knocked out the cameras tasked with recording it, along with permanently disabling all of the computer equipment in a targeted military compound, using a secret weapon believed to be a form of microwave gun.
Sometimes it is preferable to leave enemy systems alive and feed them false data, but sometimes it would be best to attack their sensory and communications gear directly, knocking them back a hundred years in a matter of minutes. What is the best strategy for victory with a 21st-century military? Easy: punch your opponents back into the 19th Century before the battle begins.
There are two major dark notes in the essentially optimistic suggestions advanced by the CSBA report. First, American research could kick off a global EMS arms race, and these incredibly advanced weapons of mass electronic destruction would be incredibly appealing to terrorists.
Second, none of these upbeat predictions for the EMS future involve active defense. In other words, there does not seem to be any way to stop next-generation EMS weapons. Only so much hardening against EMP weapons can be done for military gear, and virtually none for civilian hardware. We stand at the beginning of an era of whisper-quiet weapons with long range and devastating effect. The United State could use its technological and economic edge to grab a generational advantage, but that generation will end, and then malefactors around the world can start thinking about low-to-no-power mischief.