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EMPs Could Combat Vast Drone Swarms Better Than Weapons

Electromagnetic pulses (EMPs) that knock out electronics could be weaponized to disable swarms of enemy drones, a predicted new warfare development

In “EMPs from the sun can wipe computers — and streetlights,” Walter Bradley Center director Robert J. Marks spoke with electrical engineer Sarah Seguin about electromagnetic pulses (August 12, 2021). Whether natural or designed, these surges can wreck unexpected havoc with electronics. In this third podcast, “EMPs and Warfare,” engineers Marks and Seguin talk about the national defense implications of, for example, using EMPs to knock out key electronics systems in submarines or drone swarms, thus dooming them (August 19, 2021):

This portion begins at 09:45 min. A partial transcript, Show Notes, and Additional Resources follow.

Robert J. Marks: Okay. Well, let’s talk a bit about EMPs and warfare. Clearly anybody that has a capability of doing a thermonuclear bomb is going to be a potential source of EMP in a warfare scenario. There are also missiles, I understand, which can be launched and detonated, and their detonation gives a smaller EMP sort of pulse. So we have these bullets that we can aim towards people and things like aircraft carriers, and they would have an EMP effect.

Aircraft carriers are awesome tools of warfare, but in modern hot warfare, when high tech missiles are exchanged, aircraft carriers are sitting ducks. Their entire purpose is to sit there and get the planes in the air. Then they will probably be destroyed and sunk, unfortunately. But with the EMPs, we get a different sort of story. There’s a potential that EMPs can take out the planes by disabling their electronics. What can the EMPs do to, for example, aircraft in the air?

Sarah Seguin

Sarah Seguin: So we are fortunate to some extent that aircrafts would not fly without some hardening to electromagnetic pulses, because they have to be hardened to things like lightning. Lightning of course is basically a natural phenomenon that creates electromagnetic pulse. So of course, now the people creating an electromagnetic pulse would know that these aircraft have some hardening to lightning and probably, I imagine electromagnetic pulse because if we’re talking about military vehicles, they already do build a lot of that. There’s various military standards, but are they still vulnerable to electromagnetic pulses if they were made to directly target them? Yes. And they are particularly vulnerable because they’re in the air and if their electronics just stopped working, especially for something like a helicopter that doesn’t have any sort of natural help to stay in the air, it would just fall out of the sky.

Robert J. Marks: One of the other things that we have in the military in our tool chest is submarines and they are probably the most stealth of all warfare tools. They are under the water and you can’t use radar on them because electromagnetics doesn’t go through water. I’ve heard it described as the same thing as a laser pointer shined through a glass of chocolate milk. It doesn’t go very deep into the chocolate milk. It just attenuates and nothing happens. That’s a reason that we use sonar underwater as opposed to radar. So the question arises now, will EMPs work on a submarine? Will submarines be disabled by EMP blasts?

Sarah Seguin: The answer to that is generally if they’re under the water, they’ll probably have some shielding and have some protection. However, there is some vulnerability that someone could create an EMP that could possibly affect a submarine.

For example, when a submarine is surfaced, that is not its natural state from a design standpoint. If some people were out on the deck while it’s service or something, then you have more openings and also a direct path. It doesn’t have the water to shield it from that electromagnetic energy. So if it is surfaced…

Robert J. Marks: So let’s talk about periscopes. If there was a periscope, could the electromagnetic pulse go down the periscope and hit the submarine?

Sarah Seguin: It possibly could. It would depend on how the periscope is designed… Perhaps you could create a missile that is not designed to actually do damage to the submarine, but just get close enough to the submarine such that you could make it subject to an electromagnetic pulse.

Now, the thing that we have naturally working for us in the case of a submarine and hardening towards electromagnetic pulses is the fact that it’s just a big metal box. In order to survive the pressures of the water, it’s basically welded and connected really well. Well, it turns out that that also makes a really excellent shield to an electromagnetic pulse. But if you could pierce it just a bit — not enough damage to sink the submarine but enough to get inside that shell, then you could create an electromagnetic pulse that went off to affect the electronics.

So they’re a little more immune than, for example, airplanes, but a creative electromagnetic pulse could affect a submarine. But highly unlikely. There are lots of other, easier ways to affect it.

Robert J. Marks: That’s fascinating. We have a colleague at Baylor, Dr. Erik Blair, who served on a nuclear power submarine. He would go down under the water for long periods of time. Total blackout. No news, no communication, and nobody knows where these submarines are at. It is incredibly stealth.

I want to talk about swarms a little bit. One of the things raised in my book, The Case for Killer Robots, is the most chilling, I think, of application of artificial intelligence— autonomous swarms of drones.

The problem with swarms is they’re hard to destroy. Suppose you kick over an anthill and stomp and kill most of the ants. You come back in a week and that anthill is rebuilt. You got to get them all in order to destroy the total anthill, the total swarm.

It’s the same thing with swarms of attacking drones. You have to get them all. If a few sneak through, they can still accomplish the mission and if they’re autonomous, it’s really scary stuff. If you want to get some chills on what swarms can do, watch the movie Angel has Fallen [2019] with Morgan Freeman as the president. It has in the beginning, an attack of one of these drone swarms.

Robert J. Marks: So how do you defend against these things? Well, one of the things you can do is have dogfights, that is, launch your own defensive swarm and engage these drones one of the time. But that would require some really heavy technology and would be very expensive.

Israel has developed a laser weapon that can take a drone out of the sky, but one drone at a time. So you’d need a lot of these laser weapons. And I always wonder how these laser weapons would work on a cloudy day. I’m not sure what they do.

Sarah Seguin: I think they’d have troubles.

Robert J. Marks: They would have troubles. Now, Dr. Seguin had the idea of using EMP weapons. This would not be a thermonuclear explosion. It would be, I believe like a super ray gun that you could point towards a swarm and totally disable them. So Sarah, how would a ray gun work?

Sarah Seguin: I think that they could be effective in very close range.

Robert J. Marks: Oh, because of the attenuation of the beam as it goes out?

Robert J. Marks

Sarah Seguin: That’s correct. Because as it propagates, it’s going to attenuate quite a bit. Definitely, at these high levels, a human or animals, if they were exposed to this, it would probably have some effect because they’re literally radiating a large amount of electromagnetic energy. And, because it’s not associated with an explosion, they probably have to give it a larger amount of exposure time to induce the currents to cause these electronics to fault.

So then you’re… Well obviously, there’s a human cost if you’re under attack from a drone swarm… But also to create that amount of energy, you can definitely direct it, but it’s only so directional. As anybody knows who’s tried to shield electromagnetic energy or propagate it, it’s still going to propagate behind and around.

So I think that it is possible to create a weapon. Of course, it’s a lot easier to create one if you know the specific vulnerabilities of the drone. But you need a defensive system that doesn’t know the vulnerabilities of the drone.

Robert J. Marks: Okay.Then in the next step of the arms race, it would be hardening the drones. But hardening the drones would increase the weight and therefore the mobility and the time that the drones can spend in the air. Right?

Sarah Seguin: Yeah. One easy thing that you can do: What they do now to airplanes that are made out of carbon composite to help harden them for lightning, for example, is they use metalized paint. It’s a little bit more complex than that because you need a certain amount to shield, et cetera. But even that, for a drone, which is going to be extremely light, that’s going to add an amount of weight that might not be acceptable as well…

Robert J. Marks: Again, I think the autonomous unmanned drone swarm is one of the most chilling applications of artificial intelligence in warfare because it’s going to be very hard to defend against. I read one military expert that says they can expect up to… a million elements in a drone swarm, which is astonishing…

Robert J. Marks: You can’t do a defensive one-on-one dogfight with all of the elements in the swarm. So the EMP sounds like a great solution. It’s like having a bug spray. You can go step on the ants one at a time and that takes forever or you could go spray the anthill with some insect killer and kill them all at once. That’s what the EMP would do. That would be astonishing. I was really impressed with that solution because autonomous drone swarms have been worrying me for quite some time…

A lot of this development, I’m sure, is classified. So hopefully the United States, with all of the accelerated emphasis on the military infrastructure, is looking at this. And I know both you and I, Sarah worked with research offices on unclassified material from the army and the Navy and I tell you, these people are very focused on getting tools to the American war fighter and are very impressive people. They just need to be set free and they are going to develop great countermeasures to some of these chilling weapons.

You may also wish to read:

Part 1: Are your electronics protected against sudden surges? Electrical engineer Sarah Seguin discusses with Robert J. Marks an under-recognized risk for sensitive electronic devices. Electromagnetic pulses (EMPs) that knock out electronics can be traced to natural events like lightning or human-caused events like nuclear activity.

Part 2: EMPs from the sun can wipe computers — and streetlights. Electromagnetic pulses (EMPs) can do that as accidents of nature. But they can also be weaponized. Russia and China both have the technology to detonate at EMP from space. One reason for nuclear test ban treaties is to prevent destructive electromagnetic impulses from tests from wrecking havoc with global grids.

Show Notes

  • 00:38 | Introducing Sarah Seguin
  • 01:18 | Can Microwaves Make Us Sick?
  • 03:15 | Can Cell Phones Fry Your Brain?
  • 08:03 | Can EMPs Affect Humans?
  • 09:45 | EMPs and Warfare
  • 15:38 | Swarms
  • 22:29 | Frequencies and Crowd Control

Additional Resources

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EMPs Could Combat Vast Drone Swarms Better Than Weapons