Weapons experts and techno-thriller fans are familiar with the concept of an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) — a supermassive blast of electricity, usually from a nuclear blast high above ground, that fries electronic circuits for miles around, crippling computers, cars and most other modern gadgets.
Now comes word that a much smaller EMP device, or “e-bomb,” could be carried in a car, or even on someone’s person — and be used to take down an airliner.
“Once it is known that aircraft are vulnerable to particular types of disruption, it isn’t too much of a leap to build a device that can produce that sort of disruption,” Israeli counter-terrorism expert Yael Shahar tells New Scientist magazine. “And much of this could be built from off-the-shelf components or dual-use technologies.
Shahar says she’s especially worried about two devices — one called a Marx generator, which beams an EMP at a target, and the other with the “Back to the Future”-like name of flux-compression generator.
The latter was developed by the Soviets during the 1950s when Marx generators proved too expensive. Basically, an explosive charge is set off at one end of a cylinder of charged copper coils, and the resulting shock wave sends out a powerful electric pulse as it travels down the tube.
Electromagnetic pulse weapons capable of frying the electronics in civil airliners can be built using information and components available on the net, warn counterterrorism analysts.
All it would take to bring a plane down would be a single but highly energetic microwave radio pulse blasted from a device inside a plane, or on the ground and trained at an aircraft coming in to land.
Yael Shahar, director of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya, Israel, and her colleagues have analyzed electromagnetic weapons in development or used by military forces worldwide, and have discovered that there is low-cost equipment available online that can act in similar ways. “These will become more of a threat as the electromagnetic weapons technology matures,” she says.
For instance, the US and Russian military have developed electromagnetic pulse (EMP) warheads that create a radio-frequency shockwave. The radio pulse creates an electric field of many hundreds of thousands of volts per metre, which induces currents that burn out nearby electrical systems, such as microchips and car electronics.
Speculation persists that such “e-bombs” have been used in the Persian Gulf, and in Kosovo and Afghanistan – but this remains unconfirmed. But much of what the military is doing can be duplicated by others, Shahar says. “Once it is known that aircraft are vulnerable to particular types of disruption, it isn’t too much of a leap to build a device that can produce that sort of disruption. And much of this could be built from off-the-shelf components or dual-use technologies.”