As a child growing up during the Cold War, the first president I voted for was Reagan. Back then, we were worried that Soviet missiles might rain down from space and incinerate our country, if not all humanity, in a global thermonuclear winter, as in the movie “War Games.”
Today, we feel fairly confident that a large-scale nuclear exchange with another country is highly unlikely, however, a newer threat has evolved. In fact, it would not take hundreds of complex intercontinental ballistic missiles to cripple the United States. Even one single, relatively simple nuclear weapon, detonated in space above the U.S. could destabilize us. You see, back when Russia and the U.S. were testing our nukes, a side effect of the bursts was an electromagnetic pulse (EMP). EMP effects were found to be both direct and indirect.
Direct electromagnetic shock electronics and stress electrical systems. Indirect effects include the damage that said shocked electronic controls might cause on systems that include them, which can be quite severe as well. Therefore, terrorists or state actors that possess relatively unsophisticated missiles armed with nuclear weapons may well calculate that, instead of destroying a city, launch an EMP attack.
EMP will cover the wide region within line of sight to the nuclear weapon. Our electric power infrastructure, our telecommunications, energy, and other infrastructures are vulnerable. These, in turn, can seriously impact other important aspects of our Nation’s life, including the financial system; means of getting food, water, and medical care to the citizenry; trade; and production of goods and services. The recovery of any one of the key national infrastructures is dependent on the recovery of others. The longer the outage, the more problematic and uncertain the recovery will be. Any car made after 1990 that is hit would be useless.
The US has developed more than most other nations as a modern society heavily dependent on electronics, telecommunications, energy, information networks, and a rich set of financial and transportation systems that leverage modern technology. This asymmetry is a source of substantial economic, industrial, and societal advantages, but it creates vulnerabilities and critical interdependencies that are potentially disastrous to the United States. The current vulnerability of US critical infrastructures can both invite and reward attack if not corrected. The very fabric of our society, let alone our military power, is actually at risk from a fairly unsophisticated terrorist group who could launch one of these off a container ship near our coast.
An Electromagnetic Pulse attack could result in the greatest loss of life in human history, but most people have never heard of an EMP. This is true even though army Hummers have been specifically designed to survive them since being made over two decades ago.
North Korea’s recent missile launch put a satellite into orbit that could carry a nuclear weapon capable of devastating our continent with an electromagnetic pulse.
NORAD has hardened its own critical assets against an EMP by moving back into an underground command post inside Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado at a cost so far of $700 million.
Iran “probably” has nuclear warheads for the Shahab-III medium-range missile, which they tested for making EMP attacks. It is well known that the U.S. lacks sufficient anti-ballistic missile defenses in the southern part of the U.S., especially if the satellite turns out to be a nuclear device that could orbit above the U.S. and explode above an altitude of 150 miles. The recent North Korean test explosion indeed was consistent with a device designed for low yield while emitting an enhanced amount of gamma rays – the type of electromagnetic energy that can destroy unprotected electronics.
31 influential Americans in May 2015 wrote to President Obama, asking that he issue a directive to end the existential EMP threat to the U.S. “The consequent failure of critical infrastructures that sustain our lives is a major national security threat and would be catastrophic to our people and our nation,” the letter said. No response has been received.
The Congressional EMP Commission reported that after an EMP attack Americans would face starvation, a lack of clean water, refrigeration, prescriptions, disease and eventually societal unrest. The commission estimated that 90 percent of the U.S. population would die within a year – nearly 300 million people.
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