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 Veoh.com

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.