US Vulnerable to Electromagnetic Warfare

US Vulnerable to Electromagnetic Warfare

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With nearly every aspect of modern life relying on computers and electronics, the dangers of electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weaponry cannot be overstated. An EMP attack could fry all non-shielded electronics, crippling infrastructure and paralysing both vital and nonvital services. Recently, John McAfee – cyber-security expert, former CEO of McAfee antivirus fame, presidential candidate, and sometime fugitive – joined the ranks of analysts warning against the dangers of EMPs. Up to 90% of the population in areas affected by a large-scale attack could perish within months due to crumbling infrastructure and services unable to function, McAfee warns.

The risk of belligerent state actors and terrorist organisation employing modified nuclear warheads to incapacitate the entire continental United States in one fell swoop, engendering enormous loss of lives and economic devastation, is very real. Peter Vincent Pry, executive director of the Task Force on National and Homeland Security and a former CIA nuclear-weapons analyst, testified before the Congress that North Korea is working on such weapons. Natural phenomena such a significant solar storms could cause the same devastation. As yet, there are no defences against electromagnetic pulses.

But the dangers of foes abusing capabilities in the electromagnetic spectrum are not limited to electromagnetic pulse weapons, a new report from the Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments details. “Winning the Airwaves: Sustaining America’s Advantage in the Electronic Spectrum” details the dangers of electromagnetic systems (EMS) warfare. Rather than dealing a single devastating blow, EMS warfare involves stealthy tactics on a much smaller scale, that can compromise local military computer systems and operational data procurement.

The report warns that in the covert EMS battlefield, the United States is close to losing its technological advantage. The authors state that following the end of the Cold War, the US failed to advance EMS technology enough, which “provided China, Russia, and other rivals with an opportunity to field systems that target vulnerabilities in sensor and communication networks the U.S. military has come to depend on.”

The “Winning the Airwaves” report paints a grim picture. Failing to allocate the necessary investments the US allowed its rivals to overtake it in several fields. China, Russia, as well as others, have “fielded radars that operate outside the frequency range of U.S. jammers, and developed their own jammers that are capable of targeting frequencies used by U.S. sensors and radios,” and have deployed “large, complex sensor arrays that outrange most sensors carried by U.S. power projection forces.”

Following the infancy of the field in World War II, where crude jammers could interfere with friendly equipment as well as that of foes, active countermeasures were developed. These employ sophisticated communications jammers and chaff to confuse enemy radar. The next phase ushered the “stealth” era, with stealth planes, low-power communications, and passive sensors. EMS warfare has now entered its third stage, according to the report.

“Winning the Airwaves” cites several hurdles to upgrading America’s EMS strategy, including the significant costs of ugrading the vast reserves of military eqipment, regulatory hurdles, and the challenges of power projection to lands where adversaries possess a “home field advantage.”

The report posits some suggestions for increasing America’s edge. Deploying large-scale passive-sensor networks, the US can harness the vast reserves of computational power at its disposal to assemble thorough profiles on enemy movements. Using its technological prowess, the US can quickly engineer effective counter-measures against enemy technology. The reports puts emphasis on “low-to-no-power” systems that can operate while emitting practically no radiation, thus depriving the enemy of a target to aim their systems at.

Two warnings emerge from the report. One is that an American focus on EMS weapons could kickstart a global EMS arms race. These systems, when developed, could fall into the hands of terrorist, who could use them to ruinous results. Second, there seem to be no foreseeable avenues for active defenses. With no way to stop EMS weapons other than destroying them directly, we must rely on the limited protections offered by electronics hardening. Hardening, on its part, is generally only economically viable for military applications, and is almost completely missing from the civilian sphere. This leaves huge tracts of the world utterly vulnerable to attack.