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The Electromagnetic Pulse Weapon of Doom

Much of the plot of GoldenEye depends on us believing two things: there exists an orbital super weapon capable of delivering a devastating Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) across a tightly targeted region of the planet below. Second, there exists a unique, special helicopter which is the only conveyance capable of withstanding this EMP's effects.

Those pesky Soviets and their secret space weapons

In GoldenEye, evil Sean Bean aka Alec Trevelyan plots to wipe the records of the London financial markets, using the eponymous spaceborne EMP weapon. This is in revenge for Britain’s WWII collaboration with Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, who murdered Trevelyan's Cossack people. Apart from him, that is - he grew up to become a Double O agent and colleague of Bond's before going rogue and setting out to bring the City to its knees.

First things first: the EMP. An EMP is an intense burst of electromagnetic radiation that can induce a destructive current pulse in electronic circuitry.

As the Federation Of American Scientists puts it:

The pulse can easily span continent-sized areas, and this radiation can affect systems on land, sea, and air… A large device detonated at 400–500 km (250 to 312 miles) over Kansas would affect all of the continental US.

The problem is that the only known way to generate a powerful EMP is to let off a nuclear explosion. Since the bulk of the planet blocks the pulse, it is only effective to line-of-sight, meaning that you need to let it off high up in space to cover a big area.

You might do this instead of just blowing up your target with the nuke for several reasons. Perhaps you only have one nuke but want to cripple an entire nation rather than just gutting a single city. Perhaps you don't want to directly cause actual deaths as such, just electronic destruction inevitably followed by chaos and disorder.

Neither of these seem very likely given Trevelyan's character and motivations - he'd seem more the type to just let off the nuke in or above London, so achieving a much bigger bodycount than an EMP plausibly could.

But perhaps the GoldenEye weapon has no option to re-enter the atmosphere. In that case it will be hard to limit its effects to just London: perhaps this is no ordinary nuclear-bomb EMP but some kind of special directional job not involving a nuke blast. Unfortunately this means it doesn't exist and doesn't work - people have been predicting sub-nuclear EMP bombs for decades but they are no nearer service than fusion reactors are.

Basically the orbiting GoldenEye weapon is bunk - if the Soviets or Russians wanted to carry out an EMP strike they would simply launch a normal warhead to the right place atop a normal ICBM or a space launch rocket (for a higher-altitude wide area hit). They wouldn't waste resources and violate treaties by parking weapons - nuclear or conventional - in orbit, which requires a much bigger and more expensive rocket than simply lobbing the same payload on a suborbital ballistic trajectory to the detonation point. And any such warhead/satellite, if it was deployed into space semi-permanently for some reason, would scarcely need a converted shopping centre and the Arecibo radar telescope to command it either.

But what of the EMP-proof helicopter, another key GoldenEye plot element? An EMP wouldn’t directly affect the aerodynamics of a chopper, but modern aircraft are generally dependent on electronics such as fly-by-wire or Full Authority Digital Engine Control (FADEC) to stay airborne. Contrary to what one reads sometimes in the IT press, FADEC has become an near important safety feature on helicopters as it manages power to the engine freeing the pilot to concentrate on the other demanding aspect of controlling the main rotors' tilt, tail rotor and main rotors' pitch. FADEC is also near-universal on fixed-wing aircraft.

GoldenEye specifically features the Eurocopter Tiger, debuted by its manufacturers in 1991 as a European rival to the well-known US Apache attack helicopter (though Tigers didn't reach actual front-line useability until over a decade later).

Yoink! Saucy deviate Xenia Onatopp snatches a Frenchman's chopper

A stolen Tiger is used by villains Ourumov and Onatopp in the film to fly into and out of the Severnaya ground control station in deepest Russia, in order to snitch the GoldenEye device's digital keys and then make off despite the effects of an evidence-expunging EMP blast from a GoldenEye weapon aimed at the ground station (which also fries the circuitry of all satellites with a view of the area in the process, suggesting that it isn't very targetable or directional after all).

The Tiger’s airframe is in actual real-world fact built to resist EMP effects, using a copper and bronze grid and copper bonding foil to furnish a Faraday cage around the electronics inside. The machine's resistance to EMP, in addition to lightning, is one of manufacturer Eurocopter’s marketing boasts. (Though Eurocopter don't mention the other special feature of the movie Tiger: ejection seats, never found on helicopters in the real world as rotor hubs are quite prone enough to come apart disastrously without building this in as a feature.)

In the respect of EMP hardening, however, the Tiger is far from unique. Most military aircraft, warships, comms gear etc of Cold War lineage and later have EMP hardening to some (usually classified) degree, more because they were designed to survive on a World War Three battlefield with nukes potentially going off all over the place than because of any specific worry about EMP strikes from space. Various more easily obtained Russian aircraft could have done the job for the villains, and the Russian fighters responding to the Severnaya attack - which are knocked out by the EMP in the movie - would actually have been fine (remember, such jets could also drop nuclear weapons without EMPing themselves out of the sky!)

And indeed, in the movie it would have been perfectly possible to fly or otherwise travel to Severnaya aboard an unshielded civilian aircraft or vehicle and park it underground, in a hardened aircraft shelter or in a steel shipping container or similar, then head out again after the EMP. Alternatively, given that the GoldenEye strike in the movie plainly didn't affect all or even much of Russia, there would seem little reason not to just use an ordinary civilian copter and wait until it was clear of the danger zone before EMPing Severnaya.

Any of those plans would seem a bit more practical than sexually entrapping and murdering a Canadian admiral in order to assume his identity and penetrate a sales demonstration event aboard a French frigate, preparatory to stealing a Tiger off the vessel's flight deck and then somehow smuggling it into the heart of Russia. (Just flying it there would be rather troublesome to say the least. Assuming the Tiger could somehow evade all radar tracking - while still flying high enough to avoid being identified and reported repeatedly from the ground - and thus elude pursuing fighters with much higher speed, it would still have to land for refuelling at least twice before getting clear of Europe.)

This is another offering from the Swiss Cheese school of plotting. Come to think of it, there may be a reason why "movie plot threat" is well known to mean in general "a silly threat".

But none of that means the movies weren't great entertainment. ®

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