“A terrorist’s dream; an American nightmare.” These words summarize the video presentation of an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack on the United States in the dramatic, heart-chilling video on the new web site www.warfooting.com, sponsored by Frank Gaffney’s Center for Security Policy. EMP attack is a subject about which far too many of us, unfortunately, know far too little.
A blue-ribbon Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse Attack, chaired by the esteemed scientist Dr. William R. Graham, includes a short but highly impressive list of top American scientists, engineers, and military specialists among its members. Timing for release of its report – July 22, 2004 - was selected by the EMP Commission to be later than the eagerly anticipated report from the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States (the “9/11 Commission”). When the 9/11 Commission delayed its report to a July 22, 2004 release date – exactly coinciding with the EMP Commission – it effectively drowned out the latter.
At the height of election year frenzy, the Democrats were desperately trying to hang charges of incompetence, irresponsibility, even dereliction of duty upon George W. Bush. All media attention was focused on the 9/11 Commission report. MSM sources salivated at the parade of witnesses that the Democrats hoped would dig a grave for the president. So the EMP Commission report – a paper that could have significantly more impact on this country than the highly politicized, incomplete 9/11 report – languished in obscurity. The threat is too great for this situation to go unchallenged. For this reason, Gaffney assembled a group of specialists and produced his important new book, War Footing (Naval Institute Press). (Full disclosure: I contributed a small part of the section dealing with North Korea and China.)
The executive summary for the EMP Commission report is short, well written, and easily understandable. It can be downloaded and printed (Find it here). At fewer than 50 pages, it is a document that will shock and horrify readers with disclosure of what a nuclear weapon and missile delivery system can do in the hands of terrorists. For those not familiar with the phenomenon, a quick summary is in order.
EMP is produced by atmospheric detonation of a nuclear device. The nuclear explosion sends out a spike of electromagnetic pulse – a wave – that shocks electronics and creates electrical currents in the earth. Effects are direct and indirect. The electrical devices themselves are rendered inoperable. This begins what the Commission report calls “unprecedented cascading failures of major infrastructures.” In other words, if a power grid is fried, then systems depending on that power grid: lighting, water purification and delivery, communications, banking, hospitals, emergency – all these and more are affected. If the initial explosion is large enough, the Commission concludes, “the degradation of infrastructure could have irreversible effects on the country’s ability to support its population” (Emphasis added).
This means mass starvation because food deliveries cease, urban deaths by dehydration as water systems fail, collapse of medical systems, breakdown of police functions, ineffectiveness of firefighters, loss of bank records, inability to move physically other than by foot, and a return of America to a “pre-industrial age” state. Americans who live in rural environments might survive. The larger the cities and the more densely populated they are, the greater the probability of mass death. An EMP attack, in other words, could be many times worse than nuclear explosions at ground level that intend to use explosive force to kill. Such an attack is indeed a terrorist’s dream - and an American nightmare.
It’s not like we’re just learning about EMP. Soviet and American nuclear scientists first discovered this effect during atmospheric testing in the early 1960s. An American detonation, Starfish, over Johnson Island, had the unpredicted side effect of knocking out street lights, alarms, and power generation facilities in Oahu almost 100 miles distant. As recently as 1995, a Russian general threatened EMP attack during raucous negotiations with US representatives, noting that it “would only take one” weapon to knock out America.
Technically, a large enough weapon detonated at 75-400 kilometers above the US would induce serious EMP damage. The larger the weapon and the higher the detonation, the greater the circle of damage emanating from it. Only a single large weapon detonating over mid-America could permanently cripple the country. The result would be direct and indirect deaths of millions of Americans and the transformation of the US in an eye-blink to a pre-19th century environment.
So why is this a terrorist threat? Isn’t EMP attack something that would come from a more sophisticated country, one, like Russia or China, that stands to lose as much as we do by such actions? And should we more properly worry about suitcase nucs and such from terrorists? The alarming answer is that delivery of an EMP weapon requires less than state-of-the-art technology. A rocket simply has to carry a nuclear payload to altitude and detonate it. Aiming can be very general, unlike targeting an installation or even a city. Alarmingly, such missiles exist, engineered by North Korea and sold to countries like Iran, Syria, and – we fear – soon to Venezuela.
The missiles do not have to be launched from land. They could, with rather conventional engineering modifications, be launched from the deck of a freighter off-shore from the American coastline. Terrorist organizations such as al Qaeda already possess a modest fleet of merchant ships. Both Iran and North Korea are furiously working to develop deliverable nuclear weapons. In the opinion of many, it is not a matter of if we are attacked by EMP but when. America has a surfeit of capable enemies – communists, dictators, and terrorists – and they form a deadly connection committed to our demise.
How do we stop this threat? There is no simple answer. America does not possess anti-missile capability of significance. If a Navy Aegis-class ship was in the neighborhood it might be able to intercept the terrorist missile attack. But to rely on such serendipitous circumstances to protect this country is madness. We could harden our infrastructure and try to protect against EMP attack, but because of magnitude that would be a futile undertaking.
The only sure defense, as General George Patton said is a “good offense.” And, he concluded, “the quality of that offense depends on the warlike souls of those conducting it.” As a country we need to make certain that we have sufficient steel in our backbones to take on and to defeat the threat from Islamofascists and rogue states before they are able to launch a missile at this country. In short, we need to change our mentality from that of complacent peacetime and assume an aggressive War Footing. And we need to do so before our enemies can exploit our weakness.
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