EMP Attack by Balloon
by Jerry Emanuelson, B.S.E.E
This is a brief article exploring the possibility of a nuclear EMP attack by gas balloon.
Whenever someone writes an article like this, there is often the accusation (by people who have never given any thought to the subject, or never read much about it before) that it is giving ideas to the "bad guys". You can be sure that everyone who has come close to being able to execute such an attack has already thought of this. It is the innocent people who cannot imagine this sort of evil who have never imagined a balloon-launched nuclear electromagnetic pulse attack. This article is written only to make the possible victims of such an attack aware of what is technically possible.
Helium balloons have been used in nuclear tests before, both as the target and (on at least one occasion) as the carrier of the weapon.
Balloons have both advantages and disadvantages over missiles.
There are two principal disadvantages of balloons. Balloons cannot carry a nuclear warhead anywhere close to being high enough for an EMP attack that would cover the continental United States (or a similar area in another geographical region). Current balloon technology also cannot get the weapon high enough for a maximally-effective E1 pulse. The pulse will lose some of its coherence at the lower altitudes reachable by balloon, therefore, the magnitude of the E1 electromagnetic pulse would probably be limited to a maximum of 15,000 to 20,000 volts per meter. (This is still much larger than the EMP caused at Hawaii by Starfish Prime or over Kazakhstan by the Soviet Operation K tests.) There is also a slight disadvantage in lack of control after a balloon launch, but this can be mitigated by careful attention to weather conditions.
There are many advantages to a balloon launch for the attacker. One is the great difficulty in detecting the launch as compared to a missile. This is especially true if the balloon were launched at night (which is the only time that such an attack launch would make sense). A balloon could easily reach its maximum altitude, and detonate before sunrise. Nations without highly developed nuclear weapons programs can find that there is great difficulty in mating a nuclear weapon to a rocket. There are no such problems dangling the weapon from a balloon. The importance of miniaturization and reduced weight are much less important for a balloon-launched weapon.
The damage that could be done by a balloon-launched weapon would be quite considerable. For example, a balloon launched off the coast of New Jersey in the right wind conditions could gain sufficient altitude to put a very damaging EMP over an area extending from south of Washington, D.C. to north of New York City. The number of financial and critical data processing centers in this area would insure the worst national catastrophe since the U.S. Civil War. In addition, many critical power grid transformers are in this region, and would be likely to be damaged beyond repair due to the geomagnetically-induced currents resulting from the explosion. If the weapon were thermonuclear, the destruction of the power grid would be much worse.
As I have stated elsewhere, it is a common and completely untrue fallacy that going from a simple fission weapon to a thermonuclear weapon is exceedingly difficult and expensive. New car companies do not begin by building Stanley Steamers and or the Ford Model-T. New radio companies do not spend decades with ancient vacuum tube radio designs before putting solid-state radios on the market. Just because the United States and the old Soviet Union had lots of difficulty in moving from simple fission weapons to much more powerful thermonuclear weapons, it doesn't mean that any other nation would have similar difficulties. When the United States and the Soviet Union discovered the currently-used dry-fuel two-stage thermonuclear weapons, the first test in each case was so much more powerful than expected that each of those first tests actually resulted in human fatalities.
The Hardtack-Yucca test of April 28, 1958 carried a payload of 762 pounds (346 kg.) to its planned altitude of 85,000 feet (26 kilometers) in one hour and 28 minutes. Larger balloons using more modern materials, and perhaps using hydrogen instead of helium, could go much higher. An altitude that would be reasonable to attain for a small country with a fairly crude nuclear weapon designed for EMP use might be closer to 120,000 feet (a little more than 36 kilometers).
For those who wish to see a short video of the actual balloon launch from the USS Boxer and the subsequent high-altitude detonation, the video is now available on this web site in Microsoft Windows Video (wmv) format. The video is just 95 seconds long and is a 3.5 megabyte download. The video is at:
You can right-click on the video link above, and then click on "save target as" or you can usually just click normally on the video link and your browser will usually give you options on what to do (depending upon the browser and other software installed on your computer). These options will usually include the option to play the video immediately if you have Windows Media Player or any other media player that will play wmv files on your computer. The video will open in a new tab or a new window. The video has a strange color tint to it because of the unfortunate dye characteristics of the 1958 Kodak film used during the 1958 nuclear test series. It wasn't discovered until more than a decade later that this film had very poor archival qualities.
More video options may become available later for viewing this video without the color distortions and with somewhat better sharpness.
In addition to the scenarios stated above, it may also be possible to loft a balloon with a nuclear weapon into the eye of a hurricane (or, under the right conditions, into the eye the low pressure system of a Nor'easter). This would produce a multiple disaster, and prolong the duration of the damage by many years.
In either of these cases, the launching ship could pose as a scientific vessel launching weather balloons (which it would do in order to characterize the updrafts near the center of the low pressure system). The ship would be almost impossible to approach by sea because it would be surrounded by a very severe storm. The ship could be bombed from the air, but there would be no justification for doing so as long as it were just releasing standard weather balloons that were transmitting genuine weather telemetry. By the time the nighttime nuclear weapon was released into an updraft, it would be too late.
As of February, 2012, the world altitude record for a gas balloon is 53 kilometers (on May 23, 2002) in a BU60-1 balloon. That balloon, however, had a payload of only 5.4 kilograms (just under 12 pounds).
Much heavier payloads were carried into the mid-stratosphere more than 50 years ago. One of the most notable was the August 16, 1960 manned flight of the Excelsior III by Joseph Kittinger. That flight reached an altitude of 31.3 kilometers (102,800 feet), at which time Kittinger jumped from the gondola with a specially-designed parachute. (I haven't found the exact payload of the Excelsior III, but the total weight was 2320 pounds (1052 kg.). The Excelsior III reached its maximum altitude 1 hour and 43 minutes after launch from a flatbed truck near Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico.
The following year, on May 4, 1961, a two-man balloon achieved an altitude of 34.67 km. (113,740 feet) in a Stratolab V balloon. That balloon was launched from the aircraft carrier USS Antietam.
On October 14, 2012 Joseph Kittinger's 1960 record was broken by flying a manned 2900-pound gondola to a height of more than 128,000 feet. (That is a payload of a little more than 1300 kilograms to an altitude of about 39 kilometers.) Although the privately-financed Red Bull Stratos project was done only to advance scientific and technological discovery, it inadvertently demonstrated the feasibility of a non-governmental launch of an EMP device. (For comparison to the Stratos 2900-pound gondola, most thermonuclear weapons in the current United States nuclear inventory have a weight of 300 to 800 pounds. The fission device that forms the primary of a thermonuclear weapon, and which would function as an enhanced-EMP weapon, typically weighs about 100 pounds.)
Other EMP pages at this web site: