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Chinese expert says ‘viable option’ to attack US warships with EMP in South China Sea

US, Japan, India and Philippines ships in the South China Sea (U.S. Navy photo courtesy of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force/Released)
March 19, 2020

The Chinese state media outlet Global Times published an article on Tuesday in which Chinese military experts discussed the viability of using an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack to paralyze U.S. warships transiting the disputed South China Sea.

The Chinese outlet appeared to refer specifically to the USS Roosevelt aircraft carriers strike group’s recent passage through the South China Sea.

“This is the third time in just a week US warships are known to have trespassed into the South China Sea,” the Chinese outlet wrote, referring to the Roosevelt carrier group’s passage and other U.S. Navy activity in the disputed waters.

The outlet also published comments from People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Southern Theater Command spokesperson Li Huamin in which he said the U.S. has been using “freedom of navigation” exercises as an excuse to violate Chinese sovereignty over the disputed waters.

EMP weapons are envisioned as a way to emit electromagnetic pulses that may be able to temporarily jam electronic devices. China, Russia, Iran and North Korea have all reportedly worked to develop weapons; however, the most viable current option for carrying out an EMP attack involves detonating a nuclear weapon.

Chinese military expert Song Zhongping suggested a low-energy laser might also be a viable method of delivering an EMP attack. Song said firing conventional weapons at U.S. warships is not a good choice, but that electromagnetic weapons could be viable for disabling warships and forcing the U.S. to withdraw from contested regions.

Song suggested an EMP attack would not cause casualties or be seen as a “visible conflict” but would deliver a “strong warning” to the U.S.

Song’s rhetoric comes a month after an incident in the South China Sea in which a Chinese destroyer aimed a laser at a U.S. maritime patrol aircraft. Song suggested the Chinese military was not the aggressor in that incident but said using lasers on U.S. targets, as in that case, “is a good example and could be applied more.”

The concept of using EMP attacks to force the U.S. to withdraw from the South China Sea would appear to fall in line with China’s “anti-access area denial” military strategy. The anti-access area denial strategy appears aimed at quickly overcoming U.S. forces in the disputed region and employing methods that would hinder U.S. forces from returning to the region.

The Chinese government has been increasingly moving anti-aircraft and anti-ship missile systems as well as radar jamming equipment onto islands throughout the South China Sea to achieve this area denial strategy. The Chinese military has also used artificial islands to act as runways for bombers.

U.S. Navy Adm. John C. Aquilino assessed in December that China is showing no signs of slowing down its military buildup within the South China Sea.