The Complex

Military Looks to Shield Its Satellites from Electromagnetic Attacks

Electromagnetic pulse attacks are one of those things that keep some military officials wide awake at night -- and put others soundly asleep. It all depends on who you’re talking about.

For the former, including a number of doomsayers, missile-defense boosters, and prominent politicos, the risk is that a rogue state could emit a blast of electromagnetic energy by way of a nuclear explosion in the upper atmosphere, frying electronic systems from California to Cape Cod.

For skeptics -- and many scientists -- it’s all an overblown theory containing loads of technical and practical problems. More realistically, it'd be lights out when we’re eventually hit by a rare and exceedingly powerful solar storm.

But concerns about weaponized EMP persist. The Defense Threat Reduction Agency, a Pentagon body focused on countering threats from nuclear weapons, has put out the call for new studies into the phenomenon, according to a notice from the agency posted in December. Specifically, DTRA wants to research "high-altitude weapons electromagnetic pulse effects modeling" for satellites.

The ultimate goal is to come up with a uniform military standard for EMP effects on satellites, which could later be used to harden them against an attack. The term "effects modeling" in the notice refers to laboratory simulations. DTRA has also stressed it's not trying to predict the likelihood of an e-bomb attack, just the expected results of one.

We have some experience with this -- albeit with several gaps.

For one, we do know that satellites in low-earth orbit would be in grave danger of getting zapped by EMP. Satellites at these orbits include ones used for high-resolution imagery, monitoring the weatherb and handling telecommunications. They also include a large number of military situational awareness satellites and the International Space Station.

Four years ago, DTRA rounded up research into 16 high-altitude nuclear detonations during the Cold War that damaged or destroyed at least eight satellites. Most famously, Telstar 1 -- the world's first communications satellite -- was damaged in 1962 after its transistors were bombarded by electrons released by the 1.4-megaton, 250-mile-high Starfish Prime nuclear test.

While most low-earth-orbit satellites would avoid being immediately knocked out by an EMP, the presence of radiation exposure over the long term is a "serious long-term hazard" that "could seriously hamper any war effort, particularly in remote regions," the agency noted in a 2010 report.

Little is known about effects of EMP at higher altitudes, above 370 or so, or below 60 miles. For a ballistic missile defense system that successfully strikes and detonates a nuclear ICBM at high altitudes, "strategies may risk being designed on the basis of inappropriate levels of nuclear effects, at least for detonations in the upper half of the mid-course battle space," the report added.

The good news is that the agency doesn't think mid- and high-earth orbit satellites are at great risk for any damage beyond a slightly shorter lifespan. "Satellites in MEO or GEO are not at risk to immediate loss from radiation damage resulting from a credible EMP attack anywhere on Earth," the agency concluded.

At high orbits, spy satellites from the National Reconnaissance Office, military communications satellites, and ballistic missile detectors -- plus the Global Positioning System -- are already heavily shielded from radiation. Radiation injected by a weapon at high orbits would also decay within days instead of years like in low orbits, lessening the effect further.

There are several things you could do to make satellites more survivable, though. There's hardening and shielding, which can add weight and cost -- a problem for private companies that own and operate LEO satellites jointly used by the military. The often-misunderstood, $250 million High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP) is even used by the Air Force to research how to scrub the magnetosphere of electrons emitted by nuclear weapons that could screw up satellite transistors.

But then there's the practical problem for whoever's doing the nuking which makes the scenario not that plausible. If you’re a rogue dictator with some loose H-bombs, why launch them into space when you could just nuke a city? Either way you've started a nuclear war with the world's most powerful nuclear power. The risk of starting Armageddon is still the same. What makes EMP so different?

Still, you can't fault DTRA for at least being interested in the idea. And on the flip side, there's always the potential for non-nuclear EMP space weapons to get panicky about. Don't lose too much sleep over it, though.

First published on's War Is Boring collection.


National Security

Meet the Cape Ray, the U.S.’s 22,000-Ton Floating Chemical Weapons Eater

PORTSMOUTH, Va. - Long before forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad launched a massive chemical weapons strike that nearly dragged the U.S. into Syria's civil war, the American government was trying to figure out a way to neutralize Assad's stockpile of nerve gas and other illicit weapons. No country seemed inclined to allow the work to be done on its own soil, and breaking them down in Syria in the middle of an ongoing civil war seemed fraught with potential nightmares.

The world is about to see a possible solution: In the next few weeks, the United States expects to deploy the 648-foot, 22,000-ton MV Cape Ray with technology aboard that can break down the chemical agents used to make sarin and mustard gases. The steel-gray ship's personnel will pick up the chemicals in a port somewhere in the Mediterranean Sea -- reportedly in Italy -- and then process them in international waters, where there are far fewer diplomatic and political issues than doing the work on land. The ship will carry about 35 merchant mariners, who will operate the ship, and more than 60 engineers and other personnel who will handle the chemicals.

"Departure will depend on a number of factors, but we expect within two weeks the ship will depart," said Frank Kendall, the U.S. undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics. "We expect to deal with about 700 tons [of chemical weapons], and we have the capacity to deal with that."

Kendall spoke at a press conference Thursday on a pier in Portsmouth, Va., in the shadow of the Cape Ray, as the Pentagon, U.S. Maritime Administration and Department of Transportation demonstrated the Field Deployable Hydrolysis System that will break down the chemicals aboard the ship. Two of the $5 million systems will be deployed aboard the Cape Ray, processing mustard and methylphosphonyl diflouride, or "DF," a precursor component of sarin.

The chemicals will be neutralized under white, ventilated tents on the ship's sprawling internal trailer deck, and then filtered through pipes and hoses to a series of tanks for additional processing and storage, said Adam Baker, an engineer with the U.S. Army's Edgewood Chemical Biological Center. The organization has worked to destroy the United States' own stockpile of chemical weapons for years in three locations: Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md.; Pine Bluff, Ark.; and Rock Island, Ill. The new hydrolysis systems aboard the Cape Ray incorporates similar technology, heating and mixing with water, sodium hydroxide and sodium hypochlorite to break down the chemical weapons into waste that is about as hazardous as many household cleaners.

The key difference is the new system will be floating on open seas, facing bad weather, potential attacks and any other threat that may emerge while underway. Kendall and other defense officials declined to comment on what kind of security the Cape Ray will have, but said the United States is planning to protect it with naval forces.

The Cape Ray's mariners and the chemical weapons processing crew have been training for months to handle worst-case situations that could arise, including fires and spills, said Capt. Richard Jordan, a 40-year mariner who runs the ship. But he said that bad weather is the single biggest danger they expect to face. Since they don't have a destination until the processing of the weapons is complete, however, he said he will frequently be able to steer the Cape Ray around storms. A security team and personnel with U.S. European Command also will be aboard, he said.

"If the seas become unmanageable, then we have to shut down production," Jordan said.

The ship's crew expects to be deployed up to four months -- about 90 days to handle the chemicals, plus time to travel to and from Virginia. Left unsaid in Portsmouth, however, was what will happen if the Syrians continue to delay in delivering the chemicals to their port in Latakia, where they will be picked up by Danish and Norwegian ships. As of Thursday, they remained across 12 military bases in the country, according to The Guardian newspaper, threatening a timeline the United Nations set.

U.S. officials in Portsmouth on Thursday declined to comment on what that could mean. In fact, a senior public affairs official, Bryan Whitman, warned reporters present at the outset of the event in Virginia that those questions wouldn't be addressed on Thursday. Kendall, however, made it clear that the Obama administration continues to expect that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime will adhere to the deal they reached in September, preventing U.S. military strikes there.

"That's a Syrian responsibility," Kendall said. "That's their obligation on the agreement we have with them, and we expect them to fulfill that obligation."

Dan Lamothe/ Foreign Policy