Editor's note: A recent episode of the US prime time hit television show NCIS Los Angeles featured an E-bomb. I was recently able to talk to both the episode's technical advisor Carlo Kopp and the scriptwriter Joe Sachs about the show. I was curious about how E-bombs work and how big of a threat they are. (IEEE Spectrum ran a story on E-bombs in 2003 which generated some controversy, and there are two blog posts (here and here) on US military's progress on turning them into weapons.
Kopp, who coined the term E-bomb, was kind enough to provide some FAQs about E-bombs along with many references, as well as his thoughts and opinions below on the threat posed by them. —Robert Charette
The most common reaction researchers encounter when discussing electromagnetic weapons, and E-Bombs in particular, is simple disbelief. The notion that devices exist which can produce mass destruction effects against the modern digital infrastructure is frequently rejected as impossible, often by people who should know better. Ask anybody in the electromagnetic weapons or hardening research communities, and you will be deluged with anecdotes about stubborn disbelievers. Alas the laws of physics care not for disbelievers - the material realities are what they are, and human preconceptions impact outcomes only insofar as research funding becomes scarce.
The science underpinning non-nuclear E-bombs is very mature, the first flux compression generator was built by the late Max Fowler at Los Alamos during the late 1940s, and suitable high power microwave tubes have existed since the 1960s. Weaponisation of this technology for military deployment is currently a work in progress, with R&D activities taking place in the US, EU, Russia, while China is also reported to be active in the area. Prof Andreas Neuber at Texas Tech recently completed a US Army funded research project which specifically explored the engineering problems in constructing the very same bomb design depicted in the NCIS Los Angeles "Higher Power" episode, albeit with a much lower peak power rating.
Why can E-bombs produce mass destruction effects against the electrical and electronic infrastructure? The first reason is that digital hardware, mostly based on silicon monolithic technology, is now pervasive across the complete infrastructure of developed nations, whether in handheld devices, domestic or office equipment, transportation, production, health etc. Expose any monolithic semiconductor device to voltages, whether transient or radio frequency, in excess of the specification limits of several Volts, and bad things happen. Devices break down electrically, through a number of over-voltage related mechanisms, causing transient dropouts, long term "wounding" or outright electrical failure. The second reason is the cascading failure effect, in a large interconnected system, like a power grid or computer network, when the failure of one device triggers an overload and failure in another, and the damage effects then propagate progressively bringing down much, most or all of the network.
How likely is a terrorist E-bomb attack? Arguably the wrong question, since terrorists use the technology they can gain access to, and as developed nations deployed weaponised E-bomb warheads built into smart bombs, guided missiles, guided large calibre artillery shells and other projectile weapons, the technology of the E-bomb will become sufficiently common that opportunities to steal off-the-shelf weapon warstocks, or design data for reverse engineering, will present themselves. So the real question should not be the "how likely is an attack" question, but rather, "how soon will terrorists gain opportunities to use E-bombs". The answer to that question could be as soon as any time this decade, if anything it is surprising that we have not seen this technology used already in an attack. The latter likely reflects the motivational imperative of wanting to kill great numbers of people in gruesome and graphic ways, rather than destroy national finance systems and infrastructure, thus crippling the victim nation's ability to wage war.
The sad reality is that electromagnetic weapons are generally not taken seriously outside of the small community of physicists and engineers who work in this area, and a handful of people in the legislatures and military strategy communities. Our community has had to endure everything from being ignored, to being treated like paranoid fools, being accused of trying to scam research or consultancy funding, or being accused of aiding and abetting terrorists by publishing in this area. In the nearly two decades I have been publishing in the area I have received a good number of simply abusive emails, expressing one or another form of anger or unhappiness about people doing work in this research area. The fact that the single biggest item of media coverage this area has received was an Art Bell Show episode during the 1990s speaks for itself.
Shooting the messenger may well be a gratifying pastime for folks with ideological, political or simply misguided agendas, but it does not change the basic reality that a pervasive digital infrastructure is highly vulnerable to natural or man-made high power electromagnetic effects, and that electromagnetic weapons devices to produce such effects are being developed and weaponised across a number of nations. Until we see an infrastructure hardening effort along the lines of the Y2K program over a decade ago, the risk will simply build cumulatively over time, as ever increasing amounts of electromagnetically soft digital equipment is embedded into an ever more interconnected and internally interdependent digital information infrastructure.
As a community we electrical and electronic engineers need to become more proactive on this matter - if we do not make corrective measures happen, it is most unlikely anybody else will step up to the task.
Carlo Kopp, PEng is an Associate Fellow AIAA, Senior Member IEEE, and Lecturer in Computer Science at Monash University.
Photo: Mock-up of E-bomb for NCIS Los Angeles episode courtesy of Carlo Kopp
Contributing Editor Robert N. Charette is an acknowledged international authority on information technology and systems risk management. A self-described “risk ecologist,” he is interested in the intersections of business, political, technological, and societal risks. Along with being editor for IEEE Spectrum’s Risk Factor blog, Charette is an award-winning author of multiple books and numerous articles on the subjects of risk management, project and program management, innovation, and entrepreneurship. A Life Senior Member of the IEEE, Charette was a recipient of the IEEE Computer Society’s Golden Core Award in 2008.