Wednesday, January 11, 2012

E-Bombs: Are They a Real World Future Threat For Today's Infrastructure?: NCIS-LA Plot E-Bomb Attack Demonstrates a Potential Mass Destruction Effect Scenario

""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.""

""Imagine, if you will, two Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) special agents on the rooftop of a tall building in downtown Los Angeles, furiously attempting to defuse a sinister looking device.

One of the NCIS agents named Callan shouts to his partner, "It is less than a minute."

Over their radio they hear the tech operator who is remotely aiding their efforts to defuse the device urgently warn them, "Guys, you're not going to make it."

"What are you doing?," Callan asks his partner, Sam Hanna, as Hanna reaches for a container with wisps of white vapor coming out of it.

"Using the liquid nitrogen. I'm going to make sure this thing blows before it can trigger."

As Hanna pours the liquid nitrogen into a crack in the device, Callan looks at him and says, "We're going to have to go to Plan B."

"I hate Plan B," Hanna replies with distaste.""

""Well, what is Plan B? I'm afraid you're going to have to watch the highly-rated NCIS Los Angeles television episode titled "Higher Power" that aired the 13th of December of last year on CBS. In the episode, the fictional NCIS team must locate a microwave E-bomb which "... has the power to destroy Los Angeles that was stolen from a college research facility."

There were a couple of items about this particular NCIS LA episode that caught my eye as I watched it. The first was the use of an E-bomb as a plot device, especially given the then concurrent controversial news coverage surrounding the threat of nuclear device generated electromagnetic pulses (EMP). The subject has long been a favorite issue of presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, with some calling the threat as depicted by Gingrich over-hyped.

The episode also made me wonder about whether the depiction of the E-bomb was indeed realistic, i.e., how much realism was being sacrificed (or substituted) for dramatic effect?

Finally, I was curious about whether one could actually build an E-bomb as shown in the episode, and would the threat posed be similar to that depicted in the episode? My plan was to do a little Web surfacing over the next couple of days to see what I could dig up.""

""I never got around to my Web search, for by a fortuitous coincidence, the day after I watched the episode I received an email from Dr. Carlo Kopp, Associate Fellow AIAA, Senior Member IEEE, PEng and assistant professor at the Clayton School of Information Technology at Monash University, in Clayton, Australia. Dr. Kopp told me that he served as a scientific advisor in the planning and production of the episode, which was based in large part on his pioneering work on E-bombs (pdf). He asked if I'd be interested in chatting with him about it.

A few days later we had a nice 90-minute chat about E-bombs (see Kopps FAQs about E-bombs here), what it was like being a technical advisor (albeit unpaid) to the show's episode, and how realistic was the show's depiction of an E-bomb and its potential effects.

First, Kopp told me that it was mere luck that the show was aired about the same time of the Newt Gingrich EMP flap, a fact confirmed by the episode's scriptwriter, Joe Sachs (more about him later). Mr. Sachs approached Kopp with the idea of using an E-bomb in the episode months before. He came up with the idea of using an E-bomb because it was new, fresh and different from the usual sources of death and destruction that the show's characters had been battling the previous 50 episodes.""

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