Protect Our Electronics against EMP Attack

By Patrick Chisholm csmonitor. com | The Christian Science Monitor, December 19, 2005 | Go to article overview

Protect Our Electronics against EMP Attack


Patrick Chisholm csmonitor. com, The Christian Science Monitor


The saturation of society with modern electronics, while certainly a good thing overall, gives us an Achilles' heel. The more dependent we become on such electronics, the more vulnerable we are to societal chaos if a substantial portion of them fail simultaneously. It is said that an electromagnetic pulse, or EMP, could cause such a failure.

An EMP is generated by a nuclear explosion, or by a smaller- scale "e-bomb." If a terrorist or rogue nation detonated a nuclear bomb a few hundred miles above the United States, the resulting shock wave could damage or disrupt electronic components throughout the country. The consequences could be catastrophic. Our life- sustaining critical infrastructure such as communications networks, energy networks, and food and water distribution networks could all break down.

An EMP was a prominent concern during the cold war with the Soviet Union. That concern is rearing its head again, now that it appears we are headed toward cold wars with Iran, North Korea, and other third-world regimes bent on acquiring nuclear weapons. The possibility of terrorist groups getting a hold of nuclear missiles adds to the danger.

Some of the literature on EMPs gives the impression that such an event would fry every computer in the country, that planes would fall out of the sky, and that society would be thrust back into 19th- century technological backwardness. Such claims may be far-fetched, but EMPs are nevertheless a deadly serious issue.

Fortunately, protecting electronics and critical infrastructure against an EMP is doable. It involves enclosing every electronic component with a metallic cage that blocks out electromagnetic waves.

Sound impossible? Actually, electronic components already enjoy some form of shielding against electromagnetic interference. Federal Communications Commission standards require it. Such shielding is designed to prevent everyday electromagnetic radiation from entering and/or exiting the device. Your computer contains this shielding, from metal housings down to the little metal coverings soldered to your motherboard. There even are housings the size of rooms or buildings that protect sensitive equipment inside. Without electromagnetic shielding, many electronic devices would not work properly.

However, most existing shielding may not be enough to protect against an EMP. While US military standards often require electronic components to be protected against an EMP, commercial standards do not. And while our power grid is shielded against things such as lightning strikes, it is not tested for protection against an EMP.

Upgrading to shield against an EMP would entail using more robust shielding materials, especially for the cords, cables, and/or wires that connect devices to external entities such as power supplies or networks. Cables and wires act as antennas through which an EMP travels directly into a device.

To what extent would an EMP destroy electronics in their current configurations? Certainly not 100 percent. Not all electronics are connected to cables or wires. And many of those that are connected may only temporarily be disrupted or not be disrupted at all, thanks to the existing shielding against electromagnetic interference. …

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