Jeffrey LewisMore EMP Nonsense

Sorry about not blogging for the past few weeks.  I haven’t submitted a Foreign Policy column, either.  As some of you may know, things have been pretty tough on both personal and professional fronts for a while now.  Am modestly optimistic that things will start sucking less over the next few weeks.

Anyway,  this little story cheered me up.

A couple of weeks back, I posted a little essay at Foreign Policy on the whole threat inflation industry related to the threat of an electromagnetic pulse attack (The EMPire Strikes Back, 23 May 2013). Although the physical phenomenon of electromagnetic pulse is real, I argued, the severity of an attack is often presented in nearly apocalyptic terms that are simply not supported by the available data.

The commenters broke out the tinfoil hats!  My favorite was one Vance Frickey.  He was not very nice in the comments, arguing (among other things) that I had no idea what I was talking about because he saw an episode of Future Weapons in which an EMP simulator killed a car:

The host of the TV series FutureWeapons dramatically demonstrated how vulnerable modern automobiles are to EMP by driving a late-model American sedan near the Kirtland Air Force Base TRESTLE EMP simulator when it generated an EMP – the pulse was silent, unheralded by sparks, glow or anything – but the immediate loss of power in the car, which drifted to a stop and could not be restarted.  The Kirtland TRESTLE is the standard simulator for nuclear EMP effects for the US Air Force;  it can be regarded as a faithful simulation of nuclear EMP.  Now, imagine most of the cars and trucks in Canada and the United States drifting to a stop in mid-traffic.  That would, of course, include most emergency response vehicles in both countries, everything but military vehicles – which we hope are EMP-hardened.   With no police response, no EMTs available to go to the scene of innumerable accidents, no tow trucks to clear wrecks, North America’s roads would be chaos.

You can imagine where this is going, right?  Frickey accuses me of “ignorance, prejudice and crass stupidity.” Let’s have a little referendum on that, shall we?

Hey, I am not made of stone.

It was pretty easy to find the episode of Future Weapons in question.  Future Weapons ran from 2006-2008 on the Discovery Channel.  It was hosted by  Richard “Mack” Machowicz, who now hosts a conservative talk radio show in Houston.

Watch Future weapons EMP in Technology  |  View More Free Videos Online at

Sure enough, “Mack” does appear to drive a car through an EMP simulator.  It glides to a stop and he can’t restart it.  He really hams it up, by way. To my wife and children, I love you.

My reaction was pretty simple: “Bullshit.”

There were a few reasons for skepticism.

First, I know the relevant statistics for EMP effects on automobiles – when the EMP commission performed the same stunt, only 3 of the 37 automobiles died – and all three restarted. (One of 18 trucks did need a tow.) Just based on that sample alone, it would seem very unlikely that the Future Wars producers struck paydirt with a single EMP simulation that killed their rental.  Then there is the awkward fact that the electronic windows and dash displays still worked.

Second, the United States military is one of the most risk–averse, safety conscious organizations I have ever encountered. I was prepared to wager that White Sands Missile Range takes safety very, very seriously.  No way they let anyone — let alone some meathead television host — drive a car through an EMP simulator when it’s active.  If you read the EMP Commission report very, very carefully it says the cars that stalled would glide to a stop, not that the cars that stalled did.

Finally – and perhaps most important – virtually everything on television is fake. Ancient Aliens, The Real World, Snooki, its just entertainment. In particular, the Discovery Channel has previously had problems with staging scenes and not mentioning that fact to gullible viewers. Gullible viewers like Vance Frickey.  Television producers simply don’t care about providing factual content to couch potatoes.  If something on television seems too good to be true – it’s too good to be true.

So, my working assumption was that this episode of this television show was one giant, steaming pile of BS.

Turns out I was right.

Future Wars identified the location as White Sands Missile Range.  It wasn’t too hard to figure out that the simulator in question was the Horizontally Polarized Dipole II Simulator. (Not the Trestle or ATLAS-1 at Kirtland as Frickey claimed.  You can’t possibly confuse them.  The TRESTLE was huge and is no longer active.)

I asked Catherine Dill, our super R.A., to just call White Sands Missile Range to ask whether they really let this guy drive a car through the simulator.  Their answer was NO.  The press folks at White Sands Missile Range were really very helpful and professional.  They took our request to someone who works on the HPD II simulator and asked the expert.  Here are Catherine’s notes from her conversation:

Although the 2007 episode of Future Weapons appears to show an individual driving a vehicle through the Horizontally Polarized Dipole II Simulator at the White Sands Missile Range EMP facility during an active EMP simulation, the shot in fact was staged.

There was no one inside the vehicle. WSMR EMP experts confirmed to the official that individuals are not allowed to be exposed to the EMP simulator while it is active. WSMR apologizes that the show represented the shot as such.

Additionally, the official explained that because ordinary fuel is flammable, vehicles cannot go through the simulator without first mixing an additive to the fuel (usually argon), which was not possible for the vehicle used during filming.

This is great.  The shot in fact was staged. There was no one inside the vehicle. Individuals are not allowed to be exposed to the EMP simulator. Vehicles cannot go through the simulator without mixing an additive to the fuel which was not possible for the vehicle used during filming. WSMR apologizes …

I love, by the way, that the folks at White Sands feel the need to apologize. As far as I can tell, no one at White Sands did anything remotely wrong.  They simply showed their admittedly awesome EMP simulator to an unscrupulous television team.  The WSMR people seem taken advantage of, if you ask me.

So, to recap.

They guy claims he drove the car through the simulator.  He’s lying.

He also claimed the gasoline tank was filled with a special additive.  Again, he’s lying.

He claimed the car wouldn’t start up.  He seems to be lying about that too, since they couldn’t mix the additive to the fuel to put it through the simulator.

The shot was staged.  

So, yeah, Vance. I’m the one who doesn’t know what he’s talking about.  I am glad we have real experts like you who get your national security information from crap television shows.



  1. Andy (History)

    Wait, are you saying that Snooki is just entertainment? LIES!

    Seriously, great post and I hope things do start sucking less for you soon. Keep the faith!

  2. Ben D (History)

    Why do you even bother to try and explain it to those who do not know that MSM is not about truth,’s about sensation. Sensation sells, reality otoh,…blahh!!!

  3. Scott Carson (History)

    Jeffrey: Check out Pg. 115 of this report, EMP has very little impact on even computerized vehicles.

  4. bph (History)

    The meathead says that they added nitrogen, which is not flammable, to the fuel tank. That would certainly explain why the car did not start.

    The fact that the rest of the electrical system worked says that, if it was exposed to a EM pulse, the effects were pretty minimal.

  5. Magpie (History)

    An EMP weapon turned me into a NEWT!

    …I got better.

    I’m particuarly fond of (very small does of) The Discovery Channel, or as it’s known at work: The Nazis and Stuff We Made Up Channel.

  6. Cunninglinguine (History)

    Several paleontologist colleagues of mine have done interviews for dinosaur “documentaries” on the Discovery channel and the National Geographic channel. Every single one of them have said it was a huge mistake. The producers of the show would edit the interview to make it seem like these scientists–who have a reputation to uphold–said things which, at best, give support for questionable theories that they don’t actually agree with, and at worst, things which are utter nonsense.

    Getting your name out there isn’t worth the damage often wrought by unscrupulous “edutainment” producers.

    I doubt it needs to be said to this audience, but programs coming out of the Discovery network (and all its channels) are best avoided.

  7. Juuso (History)

    Something new(?) was spotted in China.

  8. OT (History)

    Let Mythbusters settle it, THEN we believe you!
    Oh, and existence of Musudan too.

  9. Gregory Matteson (History)

    I am positively ecstatic to see you tackling the topic of threat inflation. Just a caviat about the people who will raise Pearl Harbor or 9/11 as a counter to anyone daring to raise this issue. The exact nature of the threat at Pearl Harbor had been repeatedly exercised against by the Navy, the danger was well understood, as were the threat of hijacked airliners being used as weapons, and the malice of Al Qaeda. No amount of hyperventilating about threats will ever protect us from our own incompetence.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      Greg, one minor pushback. The exact nature of the Pearl Harbor threat was understood by professionals, but inadequately prepared for / looked for. Professionals expected something like it to happen but were not ready for it then and there.

      Even the professionals tended to discount the kamikaze airliner threat, despite the Air France incident and Tom Clancy’s book. Nobody I knew took it seriously except us truly deeply paranoids, even though anyone in the know knew it might potentially happen. Most professionals thought it would not happen in their lifetimes.

    • Gregory Matteson (History)

      The Pearl Harbor disaster was exaserbated by such things as senior officers who “don’t believe in RADAR”
      As for kamikaze airliners; nuclear power plants in this country were being designed to withstand having a 707 crashed into them; fortunately never tested.
      It has been likewise stated that the twin towers were designed to withstand a 707. Whether they would actually have survived that is unknowable. The actually aircraft were larger, crucially with much larger fuel loads.

    • Gregory Matteson (History)

      Re Pearl Harbor: Not to mention Navy command discounting the battle report of the USS Ward because the crew were ‘mere’ reservists.

    • Not A Wonk (History)

      Actually, safety analyses of nuclear reactors propose a large airliner crashing into them because that is the largest insult to the structure that can be reasonably assumed. If it could be reasonable for a LNG Tanker Ship to fly thru the air and land on a nuclear reactor, that would be the accident scenario that they would model. The probability of the airliner being high jacked does not factor into the scenario.

  10. Henry (History)

    How North Korea Could Cripple the U.S.
    A single nuke exploded above America could cause a national blackout for months.

    Former CIA Director R. James Woolsey, Tuesday, said that the United States is at risk of a devastating cyber attack delivered by North Korea. Such an attack would use electromagnetic radiation to potentially wipe out 70% of the U.S. electric grid and cripple U.S. defenses, he said. Iran could also soon possess this capability. But others say the chances of such an attack are low, citing more traditional cyber threats as the primary danger to U.S. interests.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      Yeah, this was pretty much the article that I mocked at Foreign Policy.

    • Bradley Laing (History)

      —Is their an unconscious assumption that the Iranians live in caves, make stone tools, and hunt herds of bison, and thus threatening Iranians with EMP devices won’t work?

      —Because, if they were advanced enough to make 1973 Datsuns, we would be threatening them with EMP devices?

    • Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

      Wait a minute. If the Norks REALLY wanted to hurt the US, and an EMP bomb could have effect. I suggest they detonate a EMP round above their own skies and knock out every CNC machine tool in Northern China and South Korea. It would wipe out all those American investments in China, and create an instant strategic shortage of plastic lawn furnature here at home. Not to mention the social crisis after the bare shelves of WalMart and the dollar stores really sets in. Chaos I say, chaos!

    • Magpie (History)

      Don’t need EMP to do that anyway…

  11. Derrin Culp (History)

    Jeffrey, I think you should take a deep breath and have a beer before the next time you blog. I haven’t seen you this edgy since the last time you took on Keith Payne.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      Yeah, it’s been a long couple of weeks.

      I liked your article in the Bulletin, by the way.

  12. RAJ47 (History)

    BTW, there is a similar HPD II simulator at Kirtland AFB next to the Trestle.
    Of course, VF is wrong and you are right.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      But I admire your emphasis on completeness.

  13. RAJ47 (History)

    and I admire your caustic wit!

  14. Zachary Smith (History)

    I didn’t read the comments at the Foreign Policy site, but I did look over the article.

    What I saw was a strong focus on the second generation weapon used in the Starfish test. The weapon makers have had an awful lot of time to enhance the effect, and there are lots of suggestions in the popular literature they’ve done precisely that.

    Ted Taylor’s 1987 article in Scientific American hinted that third generation weapons would be much, much better at generating EMP. Even the earlier 3rd edition of the Effects of Nuclear Weapons felt it necessary to add a long chapter on EMP.

    So I’ve got to wonder why the pretense EMP weapons remain as primitive as they were 50 odd years ago.