EMI receiver or spectrum analyzer display during measurement
The nations of Europe are on edge after a Ukrainian missile, apparently defending against Russian attacks, appears to have flown off course, killing two people in Poland. Concern is rising that the war in Ukraine could draw in other countries, including those in the NATO alliance, leading to a much broader conflict.
This follows a Financial Times report earlier this month that Vladimir Putin may be considering a nuclear attack on Ukraine—but not the kind you think. Rather than detonate a nuclear device over a Ukrainian city—a “conventional nuclear attack” if one could call it that—Russia might instead detonate a bomb far up in the atmosphere, unleashing an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) that destroys nearly all electronics on the ground within a radius of hundreds, or even thousands of miles.
The likely effect of such an attack would be to put Ukraine on the defensive while it works to rebuild its infrastructure. Access to electricity and water is already a problem in Ukraine – this would exacerbate the humanitarian crisis on a massive scale. The resulting chaos that ensues would provide perfect conditions for Russia to launch a renewed all-out assault.
This threat is real, and it needs to be taken seriously. But there are also reasons to think that such a strike might not be forthcoming, at least not in the near term. This provides some reassurance that the conflict in Ukraine will remain contained, for now, but that doesn’t mean Europe is out of the woods yet.
A high-altitude EMP (HEMP) strike involves detonating a nuclear device high in the stratosphere. Only a handful of countries have the nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities of conducting such an attack, and very little is known about the effects of HEMPs, since almost all nuclear test detonations have taken place near the surface. (Several notable exceptions occurred in the Soviet Union in the early 1960s.)
There are a few different forms an EMP attack can take, varying in their intensity and duration, but the consequences are similar. Most electronics within a certain range of the detonation would be fried. Automobiles would stop working, as would cell phones, televisions and internet service. Basic electrical services would be wiped out, potentially for all of Ukraine.
A HEMP attack could perhaps have far more dire consequences than a conventional nuclear attack as people struggle for weeks or longer to find necessities like food, water, transportation and heat. Yet Russia might not be ready to engage in such an attack.
One reason is that localized HEMP attacks are not possible. That’s because a high-altitude blast would emit a pulse that stretches every direction all the way to the horizon. Russia could potentially devastate Ukrainian forces and infrastructure with a HEMP attack, but it would inevitably inflict damage on others too, including probably NATO countries and Russia itself.
More localized nuclear EMP attacks are possible with air blasts at levels much closer to the surface. However, when this occurs, it’s the blast, not the pulse, that’s going to be the overriding concern. In other words, traditional nuclear bomb blasts produce EMPs too, but the blast and resulting radiation do far more damage than the EMP.
Thus, none of Putin’s options come without significant drawbacks. Launching a HEMP attack would likely involve self-inflicted damage as well as potentially incur the wrath of NATO. Putin could conceivably argue his use of nuclear weapons constitutes information warfare, akin to a cyber-attack, and therefore does not violate any norms of warfare surrounding use of nuclear weapons. However, NATO countries may not buy this reasoning.
Non-nuclear weapons-based EMP attacks are also a possibility. These have less intensity and less range than a nuclear EMP. If Putin is to use EMP strikes as a tactic of warfare, this may be the most likely outcome in the near term, but these weapons may not change the course of the war dramatically.
Finally, a more conventional nuclear attack by Russia on a Ukrainian city is another option. This could change the course of the war, but this would clearly break international taboos about the use of nuclear weapons, and therefore might also evoke a response from NATO.
So long as there appears to be some hope Russia can win this war by standard methods, it will likely stay within norms of modern warfare. However, we cannot assume the status quo will prevail forever. The longer the Ukraine war drags on, the more desperate Russia is likely to become and the more likely it is Putin draws upon extreme solutions to tilt conditions in his favor. A nuclear EMP attack cannot be ruled out.
Europe and the United States need to be prepared for almost any outcome. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and that’s the issue that should concern us most.