The German military in World War II conquered most of Europe with amazing speed. The invasions came to be called “blitzkrieg” — lightening war. The winning advantage did not lie so much in strategy but in technology: the rapid deployment of airpower, armored units, and mobilized infantry easily overwhelmed old World War I defensive tactics. The blitzkrieg simply synchronized the German high-tech attacks across multiple fronts.

Who holds the military upper hand is determined by the best use of new technology, whether the innovation is bronze, bullets, or tanks. Should the power equilibrium shift in this century, it would be hard to imagine the new conflict using the very same set of military units that won our grandfather’s war. If new technology were to be added to give an overwhelming advantage, what might it be?

The 21st century triad of coordinated tech-strategies would likely include cyberattacks, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapons. This post explores how a combination of these technologies could be the decisive factor in the next major military conflict.

Attack on Civilian Infrastructure

While the Blitzkrieg blew through border defenses, the Germans had a method of attrition for major Allies in protracted campaigns. In another revolution of military thinking, civilians, their houses, and factories became targets of aerial bombardment. The bombings quickly turned the infrastructure of civilization to rubble. By the end of war, this outrageous act became the measure of success, with the Allies themselves leveling entire cities: Dresden, Nagasaki, Hiroshima.

The next world conflict might also attempt to weaken the infrastructure that supports the economy and civilian populations. Cyberattacks, a virtual counterpart to mobilized infantry, can penetrate critical systems, wreak havoc, and commandeer resources. Drones can provide reconnaissance and strike capabilities. Just as WWII bombings took out physical infrastructure, today’s EMP weapons are able to destroy the electronic infrastructure underlying nearly all civilian, economic, and military activities.

Scenarios of Grid Disruption

These technologies could be deployed anywhere and at any scale. The following hypothetical examples demonstrate the vulnerabilities of a significant target in any attempt to usurp global dominance — the electrical grid in the United States.

High-Energy Electromagnetic Pulse Attack by Major Powers

This scenario could only be instigated by major nuclear powers with sophisticated technical capabilities, like North Korea, Russia, or China. A correctly positioned high altitude electromagnetic pulse (HEMP) is capable of disabling the US electric grid and rendering electronics inoperable across the continent. This is achieved by deploying a nuclear explosion in the atmosphere either by missile or balloon.

While avoiding physical destruction, HEMP’s cascading effects could cripple communication, transportation, and essential services across vast regions and result in millions of civilian casualties. Military installations in the continental US are almost wholly reliant on grid power.

In an instant, the United States would cease to be a world military power or a functioning economy. It would be plunged into a devastating humanitarian crisis.

UAV-Enabled NNEMP Attack

If the deployment of nuclear weapons seems like a risky and remote possibility, a similar outcome could be executed with a “medium” level of tech sophistication through a clandestine infiltration of drones. Non-nuclear electromagnetic pulse (NNEMP) weapons can cause the same disruption (albeit in a limited radius) without the need for a nuclear warhead.

Even a small nation could orchestrate simultaneous NNEMP-enabled UAV strikes on key grid nodes across the US, exploiting drones’ ability to bypass traditional defenses. UAVs could be launched from false-flag ships off the coast or shipped to sleeper cells operating inland. Cyber-attacks could divert attention or disable security to allow the attack to unfold.

As we know from recent blackouts, damage to the grid in a few places can have a domino effect on the network, disabling an entire service region. The three grids in the US are easily susceptible to widespread failure. An enemy need not disable all high-voltage transformer substation control centers — perhaps just a fraction, for catastrophic effects.

Low-Budget Attack with E-Bombs

The entire grid could conceivably fall through a scenario with no military players at all. A terrorist group could resort to crude yet effective do-it-yourself (DIY) construction methods of NNEMPs.

Electromagnetic bombs, or E-bombs, refer to suitcase- to truck-sized NNEMP weaponry that use conventional explosives and easily available commercial-Off-The-Shelf (COTS) materials. With a fleet of trucks, a group could target many substations simultaneously, causing significant damage and chaos.

Protecting the Digital Battleground

The implications of a future “lightening war” underscore the imperative to safeguard electrical infrastructure and electronic devices from the potential sabotage by EMPs and NNEMP weapons. This requires robust defenses and strategic foresight that match the technological innovations of potential adversaries.

Enhancing the resilience of the electrical grid against EMPs and NNEMP attacks requires incorporating shielding and surge protection into critical components. New technology like the medium-voltage EMP/HEMP filters from TSS USA Manufacturing protect grid installation equipment up to 5000 V.

Hardening the infrastructure of the three legacy grids, shielding important data centers, and ensuring continuity of command and control among military and emergency agencies are initial steps towards securing the homeland against intentional electromagentic interference (IEMI).

Download the brochure to learn more about protecting critical infrastructure.