One afternoon last summer, an afternoon thunderstorm moved through my hometown of Villa Rica. Lightning from the storm knocked out power in most of the town. Without power, all commerce stopped. We had intended to order a pizza, but the restaurant employees told us that they couldn’t cook anything electricity. Even if they had food to sell, we wouldn’t have been able to buy it since they couldn’t use the cash register. Across the street, grocery store customers with full carts of food found that they couldn’t buy anything either. Police had their hands full directing traffic since all of the traffic lights in town were out.
Now imagine that the blackout is not confined to one town, but is spread across the whole country. It also is not confined to the electrical grid. Nothing electrical is working. Your car engine might die. Your cell phone is dead. Even the battery in your watch is dead. Instead of a thunderstorm, you have likely experienced an electromagnetic pulse attack.
An electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack is a specific type of attack with a nuclear weapon. Rather than leveling a city, the object of an EMP attack is to destroy a developed nation’s economy by destroying its electrical infrastructure. The attack would also sever the command and control links between the government and military units making it difficult or impossible to fight back or coordinate relief efforts.
The effects of EMP after a nuclear airburst detonation were first observed after tests in the 1960s. In one test, codenamed Starfish, a 1.4 megaton nuclear warhead exploded at 250 miles (400 km) over the South Pacific and damaged electrical and telecommunications systems almost 900 miles (1400 km) away in Hawaii. Street lights failed, circuit breakers popped, burglar alarms were set off.
The EMP is a spike in gamma radiation following a nuclear detonation. The first energy pulse is sent out within a few billionths of a second that damages electronics over a wide (hundreds of miles) area. A second component that is similar to lightning follows next over the same area. Finally, a third component is a slower, longer lasting pulse that can cause disruptive currents in electric transmission lines. The third component is of a more limited range than the first two. The three different components each cause separate damage. Further, damage from later components builds upon the damage caused earlier.
An EMP attack would be carried out by exploding a large nuclear weapon at a high altitude above the target country. The explosion of a large (at least one megaton) weapon several hundred miles above the United States between Chicago and Kansas would destroy or disrupt a majority of the US electrical capacity. The extent of the damage would depend on the altitude and yield of the weapon.
Because the weapon would have to be boosted hundreds of miles above the earth, terrorist groups like al-Qaeda would not be able to mount an EMP attack. On the other hand, there are indications that terrorist regimes in Iran and North Korea are working to develop EMP technology. The Iranians have already test fired their missiles in a profile that is consistent with an EMP airburst. Both nations have Scud missiles that could launch a lower-altitude EMP attack, but the Iranians also possess Shahab-3 medium range missiles that could detonate a warhead in space for maximum effectiveness.
Additionally, the Iranians have demonstrated the ability to launch Scud missiles from cargo ships. This could be used to launch a surprise attack on US cities. A freighter approaching port cities such as New York, Los Angeles, or Savannah could, without warning, launch strikes into the US heartland. Depending on the version of the missile, a freighter hundreds of miles off the coast of Savannah could easily strike Atlanta with either a conventional nuclear warhead or an EMP airburst. The jihadis on board could then sink the ship, leaving no clues as to the origin of the attack. For maximum effectiveness, simultaneous attacks on several ports or seaboard cities could be coordinated.
Depending on the altitude of the airburst, there might be little or no physical damage or immediate loss of life. After the explosion, the energy pulse would travel at the speed of light and simultaneously fry electronics within the effective radius of the weapon. Commercial computer equipment, from traffic lights to telecommunications equipment would be affected. Power surges from overloaded electric lines would short out computers and appliances. Cars and trucks with electric ignition systems would shut off causing accidents and traffic jams.
The long term effects would be disastrous. There be no electricity until power lines and transformers could be replaced. This might take years. In the meantime, commerce would grind to a halt. Food would quickly disappear from store shelves. Produce would rot in warehouses since refrigeration systems would not work. Cars that still worked could not be refueled since the electric pumps at gas stations would not work. Telephone, internet, radio, and other methods of communication would all be down. The economy would screech to a halt.
People would be isolated and stranded, unable to communicate, and running out of food. This would inevitably lead to civil unrest. There would likely be a societal breakdown similar to that seen after Hurricane Katrina, only this time the scale might well be national. Law enforcement and relief agencies would be quickly overwhelmed. Starvation, disease, and violence would run rampant. The death toll could be in the millions.
In 2001, Congress formed the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United State from Electromagnetic Pulse Attack. The commission has published several reports and studies on the EMP threat. They have also issued recommendations for preventing and minimizing the EMP threat. The most important recommendation is to prevent attacks from occurring in the first place. This means preventing rogue nations from obtaining the technology to launch an attack. Unfortunately, the nuclear cat is already out of the bag in North Korea and soon will be in Iran.
Second, commercial electric systems such as generators, turbines and transformers should be shielded and configured to minimize the damage from sudden shutdown or attempted restart after an attack. Many military systems are already somewhat shielded as a legacy of the Cold War, but civilian electrical systems are completely vulnerable.
An additional solution is to implement an effective antimissile system. The US already has a limited anti-ballistic missile capability in the form of ground-based interceptors in Alaska and US Navy Aegis cruisers armed with SM-3 missiles. Other programs are currently under development. The missile threat from rogue nations is different from the Cold War threat posed by the Soviets. The terrorists would be able to launch far fewer missiles, but they might come from a shorter range, similar to a launch by a Soviet submarine. Our current capabilities should be expanded and shorter range anti-missile defenses should be added to defend America’s coastal cities.
Even if an attack never occurs, many of these preparations would also help to minimize the damage from traditional blackouts and power failures. The effects of a solar super storm, in which the sun ejects massive solar flares, would be similar to an EMP attack on a global scale.
Additionally, individuals should also prepare. Whether we are faced with an EMP attack or some other disaster, individual Americans need to be able to fend for themselves for a time until relief agencies can help them. In a burglary or home invasion, that might mean fending off an intruder for long minutes until police can arrive. In a hurricane, tornado, or earthquake, help might take days to arrive. In the case of electromagnetic pulse attack, there might be no help for weeks or months. To learn how to begin preparing your home for an emergency, click here.
In the midst of a Great Recession and with the federal debt at record levels, it is difficult to think about more government spending to protect our electrical grids. Nevertheless, as radical and homicidal extremists like Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and North Korea’s Kim Jong Il gain, and share, the nuclear and missile technology to launch EMP attacks that could literally destroy our economy and bring the US back into the stone age, we must ask ourselves whether we can afford to tempt fate and do nothing. History has shown that both Iran and North Korea are more than willing to strike first if they believe that they can get away with it.
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