With China’s recent hypersonic cruise missile test and its ever-expanding reach in the South China Sea, people wonder if perhaps China is plotting an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack on the United States. Problem is, in order to generate an EMP field large enough to cause widespread outages, they would have to toss a multi-megaton nuke over the U.S., and then detonate it at the right altitude. Who thinks that would NOT start World War 3?

 

What Is an EMP?

EMP, or electromagnetic pulse, is a sudden burst of electromagnetic energy. Solar flares are the most common causes of EMP, but those are rarely large enough to cause more than minor disruptions on Earth. Good thing, too, because the right solar flare could knock out the entire Earth’s electrical grid. One old crusty civilian I worked with, blamed solar flares for most of the C-5’s navigation problems. Interestingly, during times of increased solar activity, phantom communication and navigation problems were more abundant. Anyone in maintenance can tell you intermittent problems are the bane of every maintainers’ existence.

advanced airborne command post
A right front view of an E-4 advanced airborne command post (AABNCP) on the electromagnetic pulse (EMP) simulator for testing. (Photo by Sgy Ernie Stone/U.S. Army)

Here on Earth, though, the mechanics of producing large-scale EMPs have only been accomplished through the use of nuclear weapons. Smaller EMP bursts can be produced using energy weapons, but these have a limited range and are more suited to disrupting individual systems or small areas. These non-nuclear EMP (NNEMP) weapons have promise, though.