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I advised NCIS: LA on ‘E-bombs’ but they’re not a work of fiction

In tonight’s episode of NCIS: Los Angeles airing on Channel Ten, the program’s protagonists try to locate a stolen electromagnetic bomb before detonation. I know this, because I was the scientific advisor…

A rooftop ‘E-bomb’ could wreak havoc on critical infrastructure and electronic devices nearby. Shane Brennan Productions

In tonight’s episode of NCIS: Los Angeles airing on Channel Ten, the program’s protagonists try to locate a stolen electromagnetic bomb before detonation. I know this, because I was the scientific advisor for this episode. While NCIS: LA, and shows like it, are clearly works of fiction, these “E-bombs” are very real and the use of such a device in a major city truly would be devastating.

That’s because of the pervasive use of high-density electronic chips – built from silicon, gallium arsenide and other materials – and found in consumer and industrial goods. Mobile phones, tablets, computers, computer network routers, embedded equipment (in consumer, government or industrial equipment) and transportation systems all share this common, basic technology.

If exposed to very high electrical or electromagnetic field strengths, such chips can suffer temporary upsets, permanent damage, delayed damage or immediate failure. Any event, natural or man-made, which can produce such conditions, could cause a large-scale “cascading failure” – spreading through power grids and copper network cables – across the urban infrastructure of any developed nation.

The ever-increasing reliance on distributed computing and networked applications adds a further dimension to the problem. Remote servers downed through such events could cripple networked software applications across much larger geographical footprints.

In addition to man-made E-bombs, there are a number of other potential sources for high-energy electromagnetic effects. Numerous well-documented instances exist in recent years of large-scale electrical grid damage in the northern hemisphere arising as a result of solar storms.

Such perturbation of the earth’s magnetic field will cause induction effects in electrical power lines, causing outages or damage to electrical and electronic equipment across large geographical areas.

And then there are the more severe effects that can be produced by detonating a high-yield nuclear warhead in the upper atmosphere. This is known as the high-altitude electromagnetic pulse (HEMP) effect.

Cold War-era nuclear war strategists often planned for the use of HEMP warheads as an “opening round” tactic, to cripple an opponent’s battle management systems before deluging them with hundreds of nuclear warheads. In fact, such weapons have been deployed by nuclear armed nations for decades now.

The wide use of digital equipment in military systems has stimulated the global development of non-nuclear electromagnetic weapons. Numerous designs are now approaching sufficient maturity for operational use.

The largest of these E-bombs can produce disruption or damage effects across many square kilometres. As they are not nuclear (and qualify as “non-lethal” under most treaties) there are no traditional disincentives to their use. Once such weapons become “standard” munitions in operational warstocks, it is only a matter of time before terrorists gain access via theft, or direct state sponsorship.

Any nation with the skills-base to develop and build nuclear weapons can design non-nuclear electromagnetic bombs. This fact alone makes a compelling case for legislation to make protective measures mandatory for all vulnerable infrastructure. Indeed, some baby steps have been taken.

In mid-2010, the House of Representatives in the US Congress unanimously passed a bill known as the GRID Act (H.R. 5026). The bill was intended:

“To amend the Federal Power Act to protect the bulk-power system and electric infrastructure critical to the defense of the United States from cybersecurity and other threats and vulnerabilities”.

Unfortunately, the bill subsequently stalled in the Senate and its future remains unclear, particularly after the Senate replaced it with a bill on “clean energy”. This is of major concern, because the GRID Act would have done a lot to protect US infrastructure from dangerous electromagnetic events, including man-made E-bombs.

In part the intent of the bill was to introduce “hardening” of the infrastructure so that equipment and systems were capable of surviving the damage effects of solar storms, nuclear and non-nuclear EMP. This would impose a legal obligation upon providers to replace vulnerable hardware as required, but was limited to “critical” infrastructure (such as emergency service networks) and did not mandate hardening of consumer products.

While electromagnetic effects produced by nature (through solar storms) are the most likely (and most pressing) reason to introduce protective legislation, critics have focused almost exclusively on the least-probable, man-made causes of catastrophic damage.

This has proven to be an effective political tactic, as it presents “infrastructure hardening” as an “uncertain” need (“is a man-made E-bomb attack really going to happen?”) thus permitting legislation with a perceived “certain” need – a “clean energy” bill – to be substituted instead.

It is best-practice in modern risk management to consider both the probability of uncertain events, and the damaging consequences, and to accord a high priority to events of low probability which yield catastrophic consequences. What makes for good legislative debating tactics makes for very dangerous, if not irresponsible, risk management or mitigation practice.

Nature cares not for clever political debating tactics.

The lack of support for the US GRID legislation shows there is little (if any) public, political or mass media understanding of the risks being taken with public safety by integrating increasing numbers of critical services into an infrastructure which is increasingly vulnerable to broad disruption. Such critical services include emergency services, health information services, financial data processing, water and sewage processing, but also retail distribution of food.

If you were a cynic you might observe that a tsunami or Pearl Harbour-scale event might be the only way for the importance of this matter to become widely accepted.

Academic and government research in this area was well funded during the Cold War, reflecting Soviet threats to use nuclear HEMP weapons against NATO nations. This is no longer the case, and this research area is frequently regarded as “non-mainstream”, if not an eccentric indulgence by a very small research community.

The sad truth is that denying the importance of this vulnerability will not make it go away. At the same time, the risk of an eventual major catastrophe will incrementally grow as the infrastructure becomes ever-more-dependent on high-density chips, networks and distributed software.

So if you happen to be watching NCIS: LA tonight, reflect upon the fact that fiction and truth sometimes have a lot in common. And that’s not always for the best.

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11 Comments sorted by

  1. Joseph Bernard


    In our modern world what would be left when we are next faced with an event such as that 1859?

    Magnetic storm

    On September 1–2, 1859, the largest recorded geomagnetic storm occurred. Aurorae were seen around the world, most notably over the Caribbean; also noteworthy were those over the Rocky Mountains that were so bright that their glow awoke gold miners, who began preparing breakfast because they thought it was morning.[3] People who happened to be awake in the northeastern US could read a newspaper by the aurora's light.[4]

    Telegraph systems all over Europe and North America failed, in some cases even shocking telegraph operators.[5] Telegraph pylons threw sparks and telegraph paper spontaneously caught fire.[6] Some telegraph systems appeared to continue to send and receive messages despite having been disconnected from their power supplies.[7]

  2. John Kenny


    Those wishing to receive radio communications after being subjected to a destructive electromagnet pulse that knocks out theircomputers and their solid state consumer gear had better hang onto their old valve tuners and amplifiers. But will broadcasters be able to “harden” their entire broadcast chain against such an eventuality and will anyone have mains electricity to use after the event?

  3. John Nicol

    logged in via Facebook

    I only have two questions.

    Is the damage done via electrical pulses from the power grid, or is it because of currents in the air surrounding the devices?

    In either case, would we be protected if:
    1. we have secondary (tertiary) protecion from power surges by electrically decoupled surge protectors - in the crudest form having an electric motor driven from the grid which mechanically drives a complementary generator which powers our electronic equipment?

    2. all of our equipment were encassed in a Faraday cage - a copper mesh which completely surrounds the electronic equipment (or a continuous copper surface) thus excluding external fields?

    1. Joseph Bernard


      In reply to John Nicol

      There is an excellent article that i read a few years ago in Scientific America which spoke specifically about the 1859 event and what so of effect it would have today.

      There are the effects that this type of storm will have on the grid, which is significant and then there is the effect it will have on electronics.. So soft motor starters, PID loop controllers, PLCs, Process control equipement all of which keeps almost all our production running these days.. Cars have engine management systems, plus our phones, lap tops and even our stoves have a degree of firmware that may just become fried..

      There needs to be a stratgey to protect us from nature which has the potential to wipe most of the planet's firmware and harddrives in one hit. aka 1859 type event.

  4. Carlo Kopp

    Lecturer in Computer Science at Monash University

    Details hardening measures. More discussion of Faraday cages here:

    The key point is that solar MHD, HEMP and HPM all produce different damage effects and couple differently. Hardening against one may not do much against another. Coupling may arise via "front door" and "back door" mechanisms.

  5. Wil B

    B.Sc, GDipAppSci, MEnvSc, Environmental Planner

    I find it hard to believe that this "GRID Act" was "replaced" by a clean energy act. They are quite different subject matters, no real relationship. To my mind, both are desirable (though I suspect clean energy would in most risk assessments be rated far more important).

  6. Matt Stevens

    Senior Research Fellow/Statistician/PhD

    Fascinating stuff, but I had to chuckle over the acronym HEMP. Very catchy and clearly better than HAEMP.

  7. Dino Legovich


    Thank You Carlo,
    What is the diffraction coefficient if such a device was operated from space.
    Five metres maybe 10. Have you seen the sink holes here and there ?Guatemala comes to mind, must of been a clear day.

    1. Dino Legovich


      In reply to Carlo Kopp

      There were a number of 'sinkholes' that appeared around the globe this last year or 2. I only saw the photos. They appear to me to be a non geological phenomena and I suggest they are the result of something like a very high altitude directed energy device. I am no expert but it seems the most likely explanation for what I could see.
      I have visited APA and thank you for the info.
      I haven't read all of it yet.
      I am more than troubled by some of the photo's.

    2. Carlo Kopp

      Lecturer in Computer Science at Monash University

      In reply to Dino Legovich


      Sinkholes are best commented on by a geologist or geophysicist, neither of which I am. However, given the climatic variations over the last decade, and reports I see of declining artesian water levels and other reservoirs, there may be far more mundane explanations than orbital directed energy weapons. If you wanted to produce a sinkhole of substantial size using a DEW from orbit you would need a pretty significant amount of power to vapourise a column of rock or soil, and that would leave a distinctive signature not unlike a volcanic event.

      Apropos the photos, they are real. People should be troubled. They are not.