Why Aircraft are at Risk from Electromagnetic Pulses

Aviation experts have raised a new concern among commercial airline companies and military forces. Electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapons could bring down aircraft.

Decades ago, the only weapon that could create an EMP was a nuclear warhead detonated in the atmosphere. But as the decades progressed, so did the technology to create EMPs without using a nuclear trigger.

Now, EMPs can be constructed simply from information available on the Internet. Worse, warns counter-terrorism experts, every component needed to make an EMP weapon can be purchased from retail electronic sites on the Web.

Shock and awe

Electronic warfare experts concur. They warn all that’s required is a high-powered microwave pulse weapon. EMPs of that type have been used by advanced military forces for some time. In fact, evidence suggests that the first such weapon used in the combat theater was deployed during the Iraq war the night before the so-called “shock and awe” US attack was launched.

The night of the main attack the entire Iraqi electronic infrastructure was disabled: electric utilities, computers, radar installations, command and control structure…everything critical to fight off an invading military force.

Such “e-bombs” may also have been used in the Afghan war and perhaps even earlier during the NATO Kosovo conflict.

According to Yael Shahar, the director of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya, Israel, inexpensive EMP components are available online and in a smaller way they can be just as devastating as their big brothers.

The EMP bomb

An EMP weapon creates an electronic burst, like an invisible bomb, that destroys electronics with a radiofrequency shockwave. The intense pulse triggers an explosive magnetic field that interacts and interferes with electrical systems.

Although basically harmless to humans, it can be devastating to the modern infrastructure that relies on electricity to run. EMP bombs generate hundreds of thousands of volts that create surges in anything electrical such as power utilities, transmission stations and power lines; radio, television and cable broadcasting stations; microchips and processors; and even surface vehicles and aircraft.

And aircraft is what worries the Western counter-terrorism agencies.  

Once terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda, Hamas and others piece together the technology of electromagnetic pulse devices and how it can disrupt aircraft’s electronic flight systems crucial to keeping it airborne, they will incorporate e-bombs into their asymmetrical warfare. Much of what they need is readily available right off the shelf or already incorporated into multi-use devices.

As the technology has matured, researchers found multiple ways to generate effective EMP devices. For instance, a relatively simple device called a MARX generator uses capacitors and broadcasting antenna to create and release high-energy pulses. Another, a flux compression device, slams an activating armature through a magnetic producing coil with a tiny explosive.

Although small, those devices can be no larger than a piece of luggage. Such a device produces a whopping EMP shockwave over a limited area—like within an aircraft.  

Security experts are especially worried about EMP devices that can be easily cobbled together from electronic schematics available on the Web. They can be built from common electronics by merely harvesting the components from digital cameras and other devices.

Other electronics experts claim that while e-bombs may not be too difficult to build, the devices are too heavy and could not be easily smuggled onto a plane.

Governments worldwide have recognized the potential threat and are taking steps to thwart it.