Fact Check: Could Chinese Spy Balloons Carry EMP to Detonate Over the U.S.?

The appearance of an alleged Chinese spy balloon, shot down by the American military in February, has provoked anxiety around national security and the technology China possesses to interfere in the U.S.

Last week, in the first meeting since its discovery, a senior Chinese official offered "no apology" to U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, who had called the incident "unacceptable".

Blinken noted that the U.S. wasn't the only nation to have intercepted Chinese spy balloons, but anxious claims that it could deliver a devastating EMP—electromagnetic pulse—payload have taken root online.

Chinese spy balloon shot down by U.S.aircraft
Claims have appeared on social media that the Chinese spy balloon, shot down over the U.S., has the capability to carry an EMP device. Pictured here, the Chinese surveillance balloon that was shot down by U.S. aircraft on February 4. Handout/Getty

The Claim

A tweet posted by Cernovich, on February 4, 2023, viewed more than three million times, included a clip of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones on Infowars discussing the possibility of China using balloons to deliver EMP devices across the U.S.

During the clip, Jones said the spy balloon seen over the U.S., "could very easily be an EMP weapon package or a test package to test an EMP attack."

"And you can bet your bottom dollar that China has got thousands of them lined up ready to launch and send over the North Pole right into the United States," Jones said.

"They can detonate them over any targets they want and with a couple dozen of these, you would guarantee knock out everything above ground in the U.S."

A similar claim was repeated on February 16, 2023, by right-wing activist Laura Loomer who, responding to a tweet by President Joe Biden about U.S. EV charging networks, wrote: "This won't matter when the Chinese Communist Party sets off an EMP in the US now that they know there are no consequences for sending spy balloons to do dry run EMPs in America.

"When the electrical grid is attacked and we have no power, what good will electrical vehicles be?"

The Facts

According to a 2018 report by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the term EMP refers to an "electromagnetic pulse caused by a nuclear device or nonnuclear device."

"A nuclear electromagnetic pulse (NEMP) is a burst of electromagnetic (gamma) radiation created by a nuclear explosion that produces rapidly changing electric and magnetic fields," it added.

The report states that electronics that are exposed to EMP, particularly semiconductor components, "may not function normally until cycled in power—or can be damaged through a surge in voltage or current."

The altitude of detonation is crucial as the effect is small for bursts below about 20km. However, a high-altitude EMP could generate a pulse "in the tens of kilovolts per meter with a radius of effects from hundreds to thousands of kilometers."

Clearly, such an attack could have a staggering effect on the U.S., even if some electronics have protection against pulsing.

As the DHS states, an attack on a conductor on a power grid if it is "not properly configured" could lead to a voltage collapse of that system.

The appearance of the spy balloon across the U.S., particularly in its proximity to the national security centers, has therefore led to concern that such an attack could be plausible, seeing as the balloon appeared to evade detection.

However, two experts in nuclear weaponry suggested that while it would be technically possible to use a balloon in such an attack, it is impractical and implausible, particularly given China's ability to make such an attack through more sophisticated means.

Professor Andrew Futter, a professor of international politics at the University of Leicester who specializes in contemporary nuclear weapon issues, told Newsweek that it would need to be a "very big balloon given the likely weight of the device" and, in any case, would not be a logical move.

"First, slow-moving balloons would be easy to spot and shoot down," Futter said.

"Second, it makes far more sense to deliver this type of effect via a ballistic missile which travels much quicker, is harder to intercept and provide much more surprise.

"Third, it would be a massive gamble to conduct an EMP attack without also planning for major military and probably nuclear confrontation given that the EMP would most likely be derived from a nuclear blast over an adversary's territory."

If China, or any other nation, were to pursue this as an attack (regardless of what sense it made) detonation could nonetheless be achieved without remote piloting or controls.

Both the Fat Man and Little Boy nuclear bombs, for example, detonated over Nagasaki and Hiroshima respectively, at altitude once dropped, decades before remote piloting or controls were possible.

For Futter, while EMP attacks are "clearly a major concern" most governments and militaries have begun "hardening key comms and other infrastructure against EMP effects."

Brandeis University's Dr. Gary Samore, who worked in the U.S. government for over 20 years focusing on nuclear arms control and preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, also told Newsweek that using a balloon wouldn't yield an effective range for an attack.

"It would make little sense to use the Chinese spy blimp to deliver an EMP device because its altitude range, about 18 kilometers or 11 miles, is too low for maximum effect," Samore said.

"Moreover, the blimp is much slower and more vulnerable to air defenses, compared to a ballistic missile.

"If China deployed an EMP device against the U.S., it would be delivered by an intercontinental range ballistic missile detonated in outer space over the continental U.S."

Although politicians such as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) have presented concerns about EMP balloon delivery, it seems the high impracticality of such a system (particularly with China's access to more effective weaponry) makes the threat improbable.

One might suggest that the fact a balloon was able to make its way to U.S. soil presents itself as an opportunity for China, maybe even the "half dozen" such devices as Jones suggested.

However, if China were to do so, the balloon(s) would both have to make a successful flight path to the U.S. and evade counterintelligence alerts and the military at slow speed, by which point the same device could have been fired from a launcher with greater speed, chances of evasion, and precision.

Threats of nuclear attacks across the world have undoubtedly heightened the sense of anxiety, particularly following Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Russian TV pundits earlier this month warned that the Kremlin was "crazy" enough to use nuclear weapons, with Putin ally and head of Russia's Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, previously advocating for the use of such weaponry in Ukraine.

Newsweek has contacted Infowars and Loomer for comment.

The Ruling

Needs Context

Needs context.

As experts told Newsweek, while it may be technically possible to engineer a balloon capable of carrying the EMP payload necessary, it would not only be difficult to chart but also susceptible to military intervention, among other issues.

In the event that China, or any other nation, was to launch an EMP attack on U.S. soil, the far likelier option would be to do so using an actual missile launcher.

FACT CHECK BY Newsweek's Fact Check team

Needs Context: The claim requires more information to set it in the appropriate context. The claim as presented may be partly true, but cannot be fully or correctly understood without the right context.
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