The Empire’s Dog Feces: Electromagnetic pulse weapon mania

Posted in Crazy Weapons at 3:53 pm by George Smith

Late last week news spiked on alleged mainland Chinese interest in electromagnetic pulse bombs.

A Washington Post blog entry on the matters introduces the issue:

[A] newly disclosed U.S. intelligence assessment describes American concerns that China might be developing sophisticated weapons to zap the self-governing islandís electronics, or perhaps to use against an American aircraft carrier in the Taiwan Strait.

The 2005 assessment by the National Ground Intelligence Center, part of the Armyís Intelligence and Security Command, details Chinaís experimentation with electromagnetic pulse and high-power microwave weapons, either of which could theoretically be used to shut down the communications systems and other electronics in Taiwan.

The mania over non-nuclear electromagnetic pulse weapons is now close to two decades old. And none that are even remotely interesting have every been produced.

On the other hand, this has not seriously impeded widespread belief in them, demonstrated by the fact that now not a week goes by without a TV drama or movie using them as a plot devices.

The electromagnetic pulse weapon is a perfect magic wand, something which can be produced when it’s necessary for all electronics to fail in an exciting way.

For the Post blog article and the alleged news, the electromagnetic pulse bomb or ray has been rebranded as a high power microwave weapon. This is a semantic trick introduced by developers and the US military a few years ago to sidestep scorn heaped on the old claims about “electromagnetic pulse” bombs and rays.

It spawned this bit at the Post, including the capper sentence, which is just patently ludicrous:

The United States and other governments have long worked to perfect high-power microwave technology.

The problem, experts say, is that itís been difficult to make the weapons both safe and effective. An HPM device would have a range of only a few hundred yards; weaponry that was designed to have a greater range could effectively set the atmosphere on fire.

Set the atmosphere on fire. A good editor might have immediately spiked that as an unprovoked attack on common sense.

However, the EMP/HPM crowd has played fast and loose with facts for close on twenty years. And they have been very good at getting the ludicrous into the news. The result has been that journalists and passers-by, people who do not know better, fall prey to the classic American trait of belief in utter bullshit because said bullshit is published in so many places.

This dates from the time of the Cardiff giant, at least.

The Cardiff giant was one of the most famous hoaxes from old America.

Andrew D. White, the first president of Cornell University and one of the “giant’s” earliest skeptics, remarked in his memoirs of the affair: “There was evidently a ‘joy in believing’ in the marvel, and this was increased by the peculiarly American superstition that the correctness of a belief is decided by the number of the people who can be induced to adopt it.”

Ukman runs down John Pike at Globalsecurity.Org, an agency for which I’ve been known to take on the role of “expert” on this or that having to do with national security affairs. And Pike is very well aware of the extreme scorn I’ve heaped on electromagnetic pulse weapons over the years.

For the Post, Pike delivered this:

ďPeople have been talking about these things for many decades and they just havenít gone anywhere??? …

All the same, given U.S. research efforts, Pike said it wasnít surprising that the Chinese were pursuing the technology.

ďOne would be amazed if they were not doing this sort of thing,??? he said.

And this is a classic case of mirroring — a foreign power believes it should be in the business of trying to make electromagnetic pulse weapons because it’s military men have read about our efforts to make the same things for years. That no one actually ever makes them, or anything that actually works, is beside the point.

The problem with these types of weapons can be explained. But it’s never mentioned in news stories. Never.

Two years ago I put it this way on the old blog:

The fundamental problem associated with non-nuclear electromagnetic pulse weapons is simple to describe.

And it’s never addressed, except through elliptical statements about limits of their “portability” and the ability to predictably “couple” the weapon’s electromagnetic effect to a target. The problem is this: dispersion cripples such notional weapons, or as a scientist might say, any effect is constrained by the law of inverse squares. Nature’s laws, fortunately for us, aren’t subject to whimsical change.

“The intensity of the influence at any given radius r is the source strength divided by the area of the sphere,” explains a page at a university physics department. “Being strictly geometric in its origin, the inverse square law applies to diverse phenomena. Point sources of gravitational force, electric field, light, sound or radiation obey the inverse square law. It is a subject of continuing debate with a source such as a skunk on top of a flag pole; will it’s smell drop off according to the inverse square law?”

A bit of scientific humor, the latter bit about the skunk.

But there is never any humor associated with stories of electromagnetic pulse bombs [and rays]. It is always deadly serious stuff.

Electromagnetic and/or high power microwave weapons are also plagued by classic bad science. That is, trivial or insignificant results are reinterpreted as spectacular.

The perfect example is cast by the infamous pain ray, made by Raytheon. For years the pain ray was advertised as something to revolutionize warfare.

When it finally arrived in some working fashion it was used only to shoot tech geek fan boys journalists who could be dependably relied upon to gush over the experience. However, the real world refused to go along with the rubbish. The pain ray was viewed as a short-range torture machine. It was shipped to Afghanistan and quickly withdrawn without firing a shot. At which point Raytheon began a marketing campaign to sell a smaller version for use on unruly convicts confined at state penitentiaries.

It’s also a given that electromagnetic pulse weapon projects always attract a fair number of kooks. Invariably, the kooks score publicity victories.

For years, the Los Angeles County sheriff’s department had a man who was always pushing them. He retired without ever actually seeing a practical version and the Los Angeles police force and sheriffs have not been poorly affected by the lack of access to electromagnetic pulse guns.

In the mid-Nineties a man named Winn Schwartau sponsored yearly “information warfare” conferences that were either alleged proving grounds for electromagnetic pulse rays and bombs or simple vehicles for salesmanship on the subject.

Infamously, Schwartau published a paper by someone named Carlo Kopp — (this common Google search trend on him is revealing) — describing the imminent arrival of electromagnetic pulse bombs and rays.

That “paper” was from 1996. And the future still hasn’t arrived for it.

However, Kopp’s paper was copied all through the US military where it successfully contaminated uncritical thinkers for a good long time.

Where is Kopp now?

Damned if I know.

Over the years, various kooks associated with electromagnetic weaponry have come and gone. Some have retired. One even died before he found the holy grail.

But the ranks of electromagnetic pulse nuts are never really thinned. There are always more kooks on the way.

The National Ground Intelligence Center assessment on China’s interest in the electromagnetic pulse weapon crap is here.

On page four of the eight page scan, it reads:

It is widely acknowledged that (conventional) explosively powered [radio frequency] sources with military application are a difficult technological hurdle (despite some overly hyped Internet articles on e-bombs to the contrary), and it is very unlikely that China could have overcome these hurdles.

Over the years, I’ve been responsible for damaging many of these articles. What the assessment does not mention is that defense contractors in the pay of the US military were those who were very guilty of the hype thing.

A listing of various kooks going on about electromagnetic pulse weapons in the mainstream news — from 1997 — by me.

Notoriously, just before we charged into Iraq an editor from one of the big news agencies called to ask how journalists could protect their laptops and phones from the electromagnetic pulse weapons we were allegedly about to use on Saddam Hussein.

The man wanted to know if they could store their stuff in a microwave oven, the reasoning being that if a microwave kept radiation in during cooking, it might keep it out, too.

True story. No joke, sadly. Electromagnetic pulse weapons over Iraq in 2003. Now you know why we won that so easily.


  1. Chuck said,

    July 25, 2011 at 8:01 am

    The common man just doesn’t seem to grasp the inverse-square law. I was solicited by an ad hoc neighborhood committee to help stop an upgrade of some long-distance power lines about a mile away from my house. The carrier had obtained all the permits almost a decade earlier and the upgrade was basically adding a 500KV line on towers already in existence in a rural area at least a quarter-mile from anyone’s residence.

    They hired a lawyer and tried to mount a campaign on the basis of health effects. These were “educated” people–physicians, university professors, and businessmen. At the one meeting that I attended, I got up and said that what they were proposing was ridiculous–that the EM field from their TV set or dual Sub-Zero refrigerators was far stronger than anything that could emanate from the power line at that distance. I explained that the conductors on the towers were arranged so that each (3 phase) conductor was at the vertex of an equilateral triangle, so that the field outside of the area of the triangle was minimal due to cancellation effects. If anyone wanted to show their earnestness by ripping out all of the wiring in their homes, I’d believe them and jump on their bandwagon. But otherwise, I thought the project was sound economic and energy policy.

    That turned me into an instant pariah. For years, people refused to talk to me or acknowledge my presence.

    The funny thing is that about 8 years later, a developer opened up a new section for McMansions that were much closer to the Towers of Doom and sold all lots within about a year at ridiculous prices.

  2. George Smith said,

    July 25, 2011 at 9:33 am

    This was probably tied into the mania over disease caused by electromagnetic fields. The New Yorker, I believe, at one time ran features that tried to make the argument that power lines caused cancer. It was debunked hundreds of times but it never seemed to matter because anyone who argued that it wrong was accused of siding with the utilities and wanting people to get sick.

  3. namerequired said,

    July 25, 2011 at 10:05 am

    EMP was demonstated in the ’50s when atomic testing in the south Pacific affected power lines and blew transformers over 1500 miles away, in Hawaii. I believe this was well-documented, although in the ensuing years the relatively modest effects seem to have been exaggerated.

  4. Gary L. Wallin said,

    July 25, 2011 at 10:55 am

    How much money, in the form of government grants and contracts, is being dumped into development of these ‘weapons’?

    How much money do the contractors and developers spend on public relations campaigns to inform us of the need for such weapons?

    In the warfare state, where there’s a profit, there’s a vaporware solution.

  5. George Smith said,

    July 25, 2011 at 11:39 am

    I used to know but don’t have a figure off hand. Certainly a good bit of money has been sent to Raytheon over the years. The government also financed small business operations for development and university research. A few years ago Texas Tech was involved in trying to make EMP bombs.

    Many of these have vanished into history with taxpayer money, never producing anything.

    Here’s one of them that’s still around. They produce stupid-looking, rather large gadgets, which probably don’t work nearly as advertised. They wouldn’t exist without taxpayer dough.


    I think you’ll agree if you go the site it’s quite the monument to wishful thinking and throwing money in a hole. I first knew of them back in the mid-Ninties. Nothing they work on ever actually does much so I stopped paying attention.

    Here’s an excerpt from an old Village Voice piece I did in 2003, eight some years ago:

    War fever drives the ebullient American media to wax enthusiastically on miraculous inventions that could lay waste to Iraq. And the most miraculous of all is the electromagnetic pulse bomb.

    Although not yet glimpsed, the e-bomb is thought to be a cruise missile, or possibly a dropped munition, fitted with a special warhead that not only explodes with a bang but also emits a burst of radio waves aimed at shorting out unshielded electronics. The Directed Energy Directorate is probably the culprit behind its development, although the organization won’t cop to it directly.

  6. Steve Kinney said,

    August 1, 2011 at 9:34 am

    I noticed the trial balloons about a chemical-explosive EMP weapon just before the invasion of Iraq. They described an overloaded flyback transformer being blown up with chemical explosives. As an electronics technician, I can tell you that the net effect would be a barely audible click on AM radio receivers in the close vicinity. Shrapnel would be the only destructive “pulse” released.

    I still think this story was floated as cover for the planned use of low-yield nuclear weapons against bunker complexes in the first wave of the assault. The stupid “EMP bomb” story would account for any real EMP effects observed due to actual nuclear explosions, and the background count from “depleted” uranium (industrial waste containing significant quantities of hot isotopes) explains away the residual radiation.