China has not built an effective iPhone-killing EMP weapon

Sad news for those who get off on particularly geeky ways to be frightened

China does not have a magic bomb

Headlines all over the place are giving a really bad example of why information needs to be free.

The National Security Archives posted a summary today of material in recently declassified documents in which U.S. intelligence analysts talk about their interest in whether China has an interest in building electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapons that could fry every piece of circuitry anywhere around and our leave brave, technologically well-equipped American boys helpless before the charging hordes of fanatic Chinese.

To de-hype a little (after reading the dox): yes, the Chinese appear to have been trying to build weapons that use EMP or projected High-power microwave (HMP) radiation to ruin electronics – specifically to help an attack or simply to damage electronics in Taiwan as punishment for doing something horrible to China, like not admitting they're part of it and should give up this silly "freedom" thing.

It's not news that China would like to have EMP weapons. The U.S., Russia and half the undergrads at MIT and Stanford have worked on them, too.

EMP is the giant burst of electromagnetism that usually accompanies something like a nuclear explosion. When the Air Force still depended on bombers to deliver nuclear weapons, their wiring and electronics had to be shielded, lest a burst of the stuff from a bomb they dropped fry their instruments and cause them to crash before they could return safely to base and die of radiation poisoning from retaliatory nuclear strikes. (To be fair, they might have survived and been eaten afterward by wandering hordes of football-pad-and-kinky-headdress-wearing barbarians or zombies out of a Mad Max apocalyptic dystopia. They probably would have preferred to go during the more noble, respectful part of the movie, not the one with the Gay Pride Parade costumes and "check it out, I'm a Visigoth" attitude from former citydwellers.)

Non-nuclear EMP would make a great weapon because it would kill relatively few people, but fry all their digitally controlled weapons systems and media players, leaving them both helpless and bored.

This would be tremendously effective against large, established armies like those of Russia or China, whose military systems are nearly as sophisticated as ours.

It would be less effective in the low-intensity conflicts we've been mostly fighting for the last 20 years. You could fry all the electronics you wanted in the Taliban Alps and it wouldn't disturb most of the people shooting at U.S. troops, to whom a strand of copper is as likely to be something you dig up and sell for scrap as one that carries important information about fighting Americans. [Yes, I know Afghanistan is in the Himalayas, but you try to use that many syllables in a catch phrase.)

“People have been talking about these things for many decades and they just haven’t gone anywhere,” according to a quote in the Washington Post from John Pike, director of, a defense think tank.

I've interviewed Pike several times and never found him to be either a pollyanna or a fright-hawk. is factual and balanced (politically) in its coverage of developing weapons systems. It's not perfect, but it and Pike are not the kinds of sources who will tell you the Cold War will continue at its current level for years while you're watching CNN video of East Germans tearing down the Berlin Wall with hammers and hands.

Wired, much more promiscuous with the screaming headline than Pike, managed to sound conspiratorial while also shooting down the rumor: Secret Papers Reveal: There is No Chinese E-Bomb. Yet.

That may be open to interpretation, but I take it to mean there is no Chinese EMP bomb yet, although there are plenty of experimental, mostly ineffective or non-functional attempts at an EMP bomb and various other beam weapons -- just as there are in the U.S., which has also, so far, not succeeded in building one.

The alarm about Chinese EMP comes from a 2005 report form the U.S. National Ground Intelligence center, which describe experiments the Chinese military did using high-power microwaves and EMP on animals, presumably to tell whether they could be fatal to humans.

As you'd probably guess from your experience with bagged popcorn, hitting goats with high-power microwaves for any length of time produces dinner. The EMP only gets them to take out their iPods in unison, bang them on a rock and ask (in Goat) "what's wrong with this thing now?"

The Chinese did, actually kill a respectable number of goats and fry enough circuit boards to make it reasonable to expect they might explode small nukes that deliver low radiation and high EMP high in enough in the atmosphere to take Taiwan offline, but not kill enough people to trigger a nuclear response from the U.S.

They also looked into what might happen if you pointed microwave or EMP weapons at nuclear power plants in Japan – like the one that exploded at Fukushima after a tsunami, and other potential applications.

There is nothing in the documents to suggest the Chinese have cracked the problem of how to produce EMP burst strong enough to serve as weapons without exploding a nuclear weapon that would produce EMP as only a secondary effect – disabling the electronics in radios, RADAR and communications infrastructures after blasting them into radioactive dust.

"One would be amazed if they [the Chinese] were not doing this sort of thing," Pike told the Post, meaning experimenting with EMP, whether they'd gotten it to work from non-nuclear sources or not.

(The only country confirmed to have perfected and used a non-nuclear EMP weapon is HaloNation, but it generally keeps to itself in its mom's basement and doesn't get involved with international affairs. Or any other kind.)

Despite the suggestion that "limited casualties" that might result from a nuclear explosion high enough in the atmosphere to kill your smartphone but not you, it would be difficult to set off a nuclear weapon without a lot of the neighbors noticing and calling the U.S. to see if we would return the favor.

It's much safer, for the time being, for the Chinese military to wander freely through the computer networks of the Pentagon and various civilian agencies and learn how to take down not only Taiwan's infrastructure, but possibly ours as well.

That way when the whole telco network on which the Internet is built goes down at the same time a Chinese nuke explodes over Taipei, everyone will assume it was EMP, not a Chinese master sergeant with a bad attitude and a Linux toolkit full of trouble.

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