Mar 27, 2024 Article

The Specter of EMP Weapons in Space

A specter is haunting outer space—the specter of electromagnetic pulse weapons.

While an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) can occur naturally, as it did during the 1859 Carrington Event, it can also be activated either by a nuclear detonation high above the Earth’s surface, or a coordinated directed-energy strike. And over the last several months, concerns about the use of this type of weapon are increasingly entering mainstream discourse.

On February 20, Russian President Vladimir Putin denied allegations that Moscow was preparing to place nuclear weapons in outer space. This denial came after White House national security spokesman John Kirby publicly confirmed that the Russian Federation is developing a “troubling” anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon. President Joe Biden told reporters on February 16, that “There was a capacity to launch a system into space that could theoretically do something that was damaging . . . my hope is it will not.”

CNN sources familiar with the U.S. intelligence assessment about this “troubling ASAT weapon,” indicated that it could “destroy satellites by creating a massive energy wave when detonated, potentially crippling a vast swath of the commercial and government satellites that the world below depends on to talk on cell phones, pay bills, and surf the internet.”

Concerns about a “massive energy wave” weapon that could potentially destroy, or disable, other satellites in orbit sounds eerily close to an electromagnetic pulse weapon.

Electromagnetic Pulse Weapons

EMP weapons constitute a threat to international security and are designed to maximize the electromagnetic pulse component of a nuclear blast to disrupt critical infrastructure. The United States Department of Defense’s manual entitled The Effects of Nuclear Weapons describes EMPs consisting of three different pulse components known as E1, E2, and E3. The detonation sequence and effects from each of these components are different, for “each can cause damage which can allow subsequent components to cause greater damage than they might independently.”

According to the U.S. Congressional EMP Commission, the implications of an EMP attack “blacking-out large portions of the electric grid” would be deadly, as “326 million Americans could not long survive bereft of the electronic civilization that sustains their lives. EMP would be a civilization killer.” In addition to disrupting civilian communication systems, military defense systems, which utilize global navigation systems to deliver precision targeting, would also be affected. Thus, if an adversary were to initiate an EMP attack against the United States’ interconnected communication and defense systems, the nation would be in a vulnerable position to communicate defense plans. The electrical grid is a particularly attractive target for malign actors to disrupt a nation’s command and control centers and ability to function. Other states, like China, are also concerned about the disruptive effects of EMPs. For example, in a July 2021 interview discussing the need to protect China’s national power grid from EMP attacks, a researcher told the South China Morning Post, “The winner is not who attacks first, but who recovers first.”

Last year, several commentators raised concerns about whether the errant Chinese high-altitude balloon spotted flying over the United States in February 2023, could perhaps be a precursor to future high-altitude EMP-enabled balloons from China and other adversaries. “Using a balloon as a WMD platform could provide adversaries with a pallet of altitudes and payload options with which to maximize offensive effects against the U.S.,” warned Air Force Maj. David Stuckenberg in a 2015 report for the American Leadership & Policy Foundation.

For historical context, the general threat posed by nuclear EMP weapons—namely, their ability to harm electronics—was discovered in the 1960s during the United States’ nuclear testing research with EMP simulators. On June 20, 1962, the military and Atomic Energy Commission successfully tested a nuclear warhead at Johnston Island in Operation Starfish Prime. In 1999, physicist William Graham, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy under President Ronald Reagan, testified that the technical expertise needed to detonate an EMP weapon from outer space and destroy the U.S. electronic infrastructure would surprisingly not require highly advanced technical means.

International Legal Considerations

According to Kirby, this Russian space-based weapon would violate Article IV of the international Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which prohibits deploying “nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction” in orbit, or “station weapons in outer space in any other manner.” In contrast, Putin said during a meeting with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu last month that Russia calls “for compliance with all agreements that exist in this area and proposed to strengthen this joint work many times over.

Over 130 States have signed the Outer Space Treaty (OST), including the United States and the Russian Federation. The OST is a leading document in the canon of outer space law, along with the United Nations Charter and other relevant international laws. The OST outlines international cooperation, exploration, and scientific research of outer space and celestial bodies. It also prohibits national claims of sovereignty, establishment of military bases and weapons, or placement of weapons of mass destruction in orbit or on celestial bodies. There is also the Moon Agreement, which recites that celestial bodies only used for peaceful purposes and cannot be contaminated, however, not all States are signatories to this instrument.

While the White House has released little information about this Russian counterspace capability, Kirby explained, “We’re not talking about a weapon that can be used to attack human beings or cause physical destruction here on Earth.’’ As more information about Russia’s "troubling" ASAT weapon becomes publicly available, policymakers should prioritize legislation to harden electric infrastructure from EMP incidents. Further, in support of President Biden’s National Security Memorandum on Improving Cybersecurity for Critical Infrastructure Control Systems, policymakers should consider establishing an EMP Manhattan Project Congressional Commission to develop contingency plans for catastrophic disruptions to national critical infrastructure. Regardless of whether the EMP specter is naturally occurring, or man-made, enhancing national recovery capabilities and coordination to reduce human suffering should be at the forefront of national disaster planning.

In memoriam to the late Peter Vincent Pry, Ph.D., former executive director of the Task Force on National and Homeland Security, a Congressional Advisory Board dedicated to achieving protection of the United States from EMP events.

Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs is an independent and nonpartisan nonprofit. The views expressed within this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Carnegie Council.

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