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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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