Electro-Magnetic Pulse Technology as Warfare: Is International Law Prepared?

By now, many are familiar with cyber attacks. Yet, it recently came to my attention that there is another type of electronic warfare that is not far away from becoming reality: electro-magnetic warfare.  Electro-magnetic warfare consists of Electro-Magnetic Pulse [EMP] attacks that have the capacity to disable any asset that is dependent upon electricity.  For instance, depending on the strength of the attack, an EMP attack could shut down a military convoy, an aircraft carrier, a satellite, or a city.  Gamers who play Activision’s Modern Warfare line of video-games may be familiar with the hypothetical effect that an EMP attack can have; but the United States is doing what it can to bring that hypothetical to life.

Creating the capability to launch an EMP attack presents myriad concerns. For instance, is an EMP attack considered an armed attack? Does the technology qualify to be classified as military arms? And, if an EMP disables a satellite in outer space, is such an attack considered a violation of the satellite owner’s sovereignty?  It is troublesome that international law does not offer an answer to these questions.

In recent years, the international community has battled with similar questions in the context of cyber attacks. Thus far, however, there have been few answers. To date, the best that we have is a NATO report which concludes that the joint U.S.-Israeli cyber attack, Stuxnet, was an unlawful use of force perpetrated in violation of the U.N. Charter Art. 2(4).  However, the NATO report is neither authoritative nor conclusive. And, in any event, even if the use of a cyber attack is considered an unlawful use of force there is still no legal justification for a victimized State to retaliate in such a circumstance.  Article 51 of the U.N. Charter provides that a State may invoke its right to self-defense only if there has been an armed attack waged against it.  Therefore, in the case of EMPs, where it is unlikely that the attack can be considered an armed attack, a victimized State will not have recourse to defend itself under international law.

Given these concerns, some have called for a Convention limiting the use of cyber attacks and refining the definition of “armed attack.”  Further concerns have mounted over the likely disparity among various States in their ability to develop the EMP technology.  If the U.S. is able to develop a sustainable EMP technology and no other nation can, then what would be the repercussions? Should the international community negotiate and draft a treaty on these non-traditional modes of using force?  Do you agree with the NATO report that cyber attack are a use of force? If so, will EMPs be any different? How so?

Article Sources: BBC, United Nations Charter, Wired.com

Photo Source: Townhall.com


  1. I think there is no question that there needs to be a Convention on cyber warfare. Cyber warfare is just another development akin to the mustard gas used in World War I and the nuclear arms used during World War II. Guidelines have to be adopted for its use because adapting rules of warfare that are decades old does not work and create ambiguities.
    The EMP weapons are extremely interesting because it really seems like they are being pulled from movies and video games. I think this is where a new convention on cyber warfare comes into play. It must be able to have some forethought on the new weapons being developed and include them. EMPs are a use of force because they can disable anything that uses electricity- satellites, drones or even airplanes. Their use against military and civilian targets would be devastating. What if one was used against a hospital? Society cannot handle the lack of electricity-look at the crippled East Coast during Hurricane Sandy. Hopefully new conventions on the use of cyber warfare will serve as a deterrent on the use of these kinds of weapons.

  2. As technology develops, the weapons and military tactics adapt to that technology. There should absolutely be a convention that dictates how these different types of attacks are classified. I do agree that a cyber attack is a use of force, because while not a use of physical force, it still has a felt impact on the victimized country. Additionally, I do not see much of a variation when it comes to EMP attacks. It is another way of disabling the victim in a way that could prove to be even more harmful than a use of force in a physical context. While an EMP may be a use of force, I am not sure it is an armed attack. That being said, I think that it could fit the criteria of a newly defined class of attacks that are of the electronic type now in use. Countries that are hit with an EMP should have a right to defend themselves, because like the example Andrew used, what if an EMP knocked out the electricity of a hospital. An attack like that could be devastating and cause even more harm than an armed attack would. Regardless, a convention should be had to hammer out the terms and classifications of these types of attacks, because they will be used more and more in the future.

  3. I do think that, like cyber attacks; an EMP attack should be considered a use of force entitling a country to self-defense under Article 51. It has the ability to make various weapons that could be used in self-defense ineffective in combat. That would give any nation using an EMP weapon a large military advantage, a concern the drafters of the convention I am sure wanted addressed.

    I agree with Andrew that this type of modern warfare requires the drafting of a new convention because the ones currently in place cannot adequately address these new technologies. Under such a treaty I think EMP should be limited to retaliatory actions. For example, if a military ship were to cross into another country’s boarders without permission use of an EMP to disable the ship should be allowed. By disabling the ship the non-violating country will be able to better prove a violation has occurred while preventing any injury to personnel on the ship. Using an EMP in this way provides countries with a non-lethal deterrent against those who would violate international treaties.

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