The following excerpt from the new book, "War Footing: 10 Steps America Must Take to Prevail in the War for the Free World", by Frank J. Gaffney and Colleagues, is reprinted with permission from the publisher, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland.
If Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda — or the dictators of North Korea or Iran — had the ability to destroy America as a superpower, would they be tempted to try?
Wouldn't that temptation be even greater if that result could be achieved with a single attack, involving just one nuclear weapon, perhaps even one of modest power and relatively unsophisticated design?
And, what if the attacker could be reasonably sure that the United States would not know who was responsible for such a devastating blow?
Unfortunately, that scenario is not far fetched. It is the conclusion of a report issued in 2004 by a blue ribbon commission created by Congress. The commission found that a single nuclear weapon, delivered by a ballistic missile to an altitude of a few hundred miles over the United States, would be "capable of causing catastrophe for the nation."
How is that possible? By precipitating a lethal electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack.
In 2000, concerned about EMP technology, Congress created the "Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse Attack" (the EMP Threat Commission, for short). In its final report, presented in summer 2004, the panel warned that terrorists could indeed execute such an attack by launching a small nuclear armed missile from a freighter off the coast of the United States.
The ingredients for an EMP attack may be already within reach.
Al-Qaeda is known to have a fleet of freighters.
One of those freighters could easily be outfitted with a short- range ballistic missile capable of getting a nuclear weapon to almost any point in the airspace above our country.
Thousands of Scud missiles exist around the world, and they are said to cost less than $100,000 to purchase from willing suppliers like North Korea. (In December 2002, a North Korean ship was intercepted, temporarily, as it prepared to deliver twelve Scud missiles to Yemen.)
North Korea has also declared its willingness to sell nuclear weapons to terrorists.
Iran has demonstrated it has the capability to launch a Scud missile from a vessel at sea.
Ship-launched ballistic missiles have a special advantage. The "return address" of the attacker may be difficult to determine, especially if the missile is a generic Scud type weapon, found in many countries' arsenals.
But even though all the tools needed for this nightmare scenario could be in the hands of terrorists already, and even though a high altitude EMP attack could be considered the ultimate "weapon of mass destruction," little has changed in our level of preparedness or even our policy debates. EMP is still rarely mentioned in discussions of the WMDs we need to worry about.
We need to start worrying.
An Atmospheric Tsunami
A nuclear weapon produces several different effects. The best known are the intense heat and hyperpressures associated with the fireball and the accompanying blast.
But a nuclear explosion also generates massive outputs of other kinds of energy. These include the creation of intense streams of x-rays and gamma-rays. If those are unleashed outside the earth's atmosphere, some of them will interact with the air molecules of the upper atmosphere.
The result is an enormous pulsed current of high energy electrons that will interact, in turn, with the earth's magnetic field.
In an instant, an invisible radio frequency wave is produced — a wave of almost unimaginably immense intensity, approximately a million times as strong as the most powerful radio signals on the earth. The energy of this pulse would reach everything in line of sight of the detonation. And it would do so at the speed of light.
The higher the altitude of the weapon's detonation, the larger the affected area would be. At a height of three hundred miles, for example, the entire continental United States would be exposed, along with parts of Canada and Mexico.
As the fireball expands in space, it would also generate electrical currents on earth — ultra high-speed electromagnetic "shock waves" that would endanger much of our technological infrastructure. Such high speed currents would disable, temporarily or permanently,
extended electrical conductors, such as the electricity transmission lines that make up our power grid.
any unprotected computers and microchips.
all the systems that depend on electricity and electronics, from medical instruments to military communications.
As the EMP Threat Commission put it: The electromagnetic fields produced by weapons designed and deployed with the intent to produce EMP have a high likelihood of damaging electrical power systems, electronics, and information systems upon which American society depends. Their effects on dependent systems and infrastructures could be sufficient to qualify as catastrophic to the nation. [Emphasis added.]
The systems at risk from EMP include:
electronic control, sensor, and protective systems of all kinds
computers and cell phones
cars, boats, airplanes, and trains
the infrastructures for handling electric power, telecommunications, transportation, fuel and energy, banking and finance, emergency services, and even food and water.
A One Two Three Punch
Following rapidly on this electromagnetic tsunami, there would be a "medium speed component" of EMP. It would cover roughly the same geographic area as the first, "high- speed" component, though its peak power level would be much less.
This medium-speed component follows the high speed component by merely a fraction of a second. It further damages the electric systems that are already impaired and exposed by the initial electromagnetic impact.
And finally, there is a third wave of EMP attack, the "slow component" produced by the continuing expansion of the fireball in the earth's magnetic field. This slow component — a pulse that may last just seconds or minutes — creates disruptive currents in electricity transmission lines, damaging the surviving electrical supply and distribution systems.
Unpredicted Test Effects
The destructive power of EMP effects was first glimpsed in the atmospheric nuclear tests of the Cold War era. The United States and the Soviet Union independently discovered the same phenomenon: a high-altitude nuclear explosion could damage or destroy electronic systems on the earth, with potentially devastating consequences for the targeted society.
In 1962, the United States conducted a test called "Starfish," detonating a nuclear weapon about 250 miles above Johnston Island in the Pacific Ocean. The resulting EMP reached all the way to the Hawaiian Islands, a little over 700 miles away. There, on the far edge of the EMP field, the explosion extinguished streetlights in Honolulu, tripped circuit breakers, triggered burglar alarms, and damaged a telecommunications relay facility.
The Soviet tests included a series of high altitude nuclear detonations over South Central Asia. EMP from these tests damaged overhead (and even underground) electrical cables at a range of 375 miles, causing surge arrestor burnout, blown fuses, and blackouts.
The consequences of an EMP attack would of course be far more significant today, with so much of our infrastructure (civilian as well as military) dependent on electricity and electronics. The EMP Threat Commission estimated that it could take "months to years" to fully restore critical infrastructures after an EMP attack:
Depending on the specific characteristics of the attacks, unprecedented cascading failures of our major infrastructures could result. In that event, a regional or national recovery would be long and difficult and would seriously degrade the safety and overall viability of our nation. The primary avenues for catastrophic damage to the nation are through our electric power infrastructure and thence into our telecommunications, energy, and other infrastructures. 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. It is possible for the functional outages to become mutually reinforcing until at some point the degradation of infrastructure could have irreversible effects on the country's ability to support its population. [Emphasis added.]
What Is Being Done to Address the Danger?
An EMP attack potentially represents a high tech means for terrorists to kill millions of Americans the old fashioned way, through starvation and disease. Although the direct physical effects of EMP are harmless to people, a well designed and well-executed EMP attack could kill — indirectly — far more Americans than a nuclear weapon detonated in our most populous city.
Dr. Lowell Wood of Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, a member of the EMP Threat Commission, has warned in testimony before Congress that an EMP attack could reduce the United States to a pre-Industrial Age capacity, in terms of its ability to provide vital food and water to its population.
In 1900, prior to widespread electrification of the United States, our country's population was less than one-third of its size today. An attack that destroyed our technological infrastructure would certainly decimate the population.
But if EMP is such a big threat, why have we not heard more about it? Why do we not hear discussions of how to reduce its potential impact on this country? In fact, the EMP Threat Commission was the outcome of four years of hearings and briefings, as a frustrated Congress tried to alert the executive branch to the danger of EMP attack.
Their efforts seemed futile. In 1997, Gen. Robert Marsh (then-chairman of the Commission on Critical Infrastructure Protection) told the House Armed Services Committee:
[W]e consider a terrorist acquiring a nuclear weapon, and positioning it at the high altitude necessary for generation of an EMP burst that would debilitate our infrastructures, to be a very remote possibility. . . . Such an event is so unlikely and difficult to achieve that I do not believe it warrants serious concern at this time. [Emphasis added.]
In contrast, the testimony Congress received from other sources strongly suggested that such a devastating attack was neither unlikely nor difficult to achieve. It seemed that there was, in fact, reason to be concerned that terrorists and rogue states might present an EMP threat to the United States.
Concerned members of congress received help from an unlikely quarter in May 1999, when Russia explicitly invoked the specter of an EMP attack on the United States.
Vladimir Lukin (the chairman of the Duma International Affairs Committee) assured a delegation of American legislators that Russia was not helpless in the face of U.S. led interventions:
Hypothetically, if Russia really wanted to hurt the United States in retaliation for NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia, Russia could fire a submarine launched ballistic missile and detonate a single nuclear warhead at high altitude over the United States. The resulting electromagnetic pulse would massively disrupt U.S. communications and computer systems, shutting down everything.
This blunt statement succeeded in getting the attention of both parties in Congress. A second opinion was clearly needed. And on October 30, 2000, the EMP Threat Commission was established by law.
The EMP Threat Today
The EMP Threat Commission conducted a worldwide survey of foreign scientific and military literature to assess the knowledge and intentions of foreign states regarding an EMP attack. The survey confirmed that both the physics and the military potential of EMP are indeed widely understood in the international community.
The commission survey found that the following nations were knowledgeable about EMP: China, Cuba, Egypt, India, Iran, Saddam Hussein's Iraq, North Korea, Pakistan, and Russia.
The commission also learned that some foreign military experts regard EMP attack as a form of electronic or information warfare, not primarily as a form of nuclear war. One of China's leading military theorists has written:
Information war and traditional war have one thing in common, namely that the country which possesses the critical weapons such as atomic bombs will have "first strike" and "second strike retaliation" capabilities . . . .
As soon as its computer networks come under attack and are destroyed, the country will slip into a state of paralysis and the lives of its people will grind to a halt. (Su Tzu Yun, World War: The Third World War — Total Information Warfare, 2001.)
In Iran — the most unabashed state sponsor of international terrorism today — some theorists have argued that the key to defeating the United States lies in attacking its electronics. This is from an Iranian political military policy journal:
Once you confuse the enemy communication network, you can also disrupt the work of the enemy command and decision making center.
Even worse, today when you disable a country's military high command through disruption of communications you will, in effect, disrupt all the affairs of that country. . . . If the world's industrial countries fail to devise effective ways to defend themselves against dangerous electronic assaults, then they will disintegrate within a few years. . . . American soldiers would not be able to find food to eat nor would they be able to fire a single shot. ("Electronics to Determine Fate of Future Wars," Nashriyeh e Siasi Nezami, 1999.)
And this implied threat may not be empty words. In addition to their successful ship launched Scud missile test, the Iranian military has reportedly performed tests of its Shahab 3 medium range ballistic missile in a manner consistent with an EMP attack scenario.
The above excerpt is from Chapter Six, "Counter the Mega-Threat: EMP Attack" of the book "War Footing " by Frank J. Gaffney (Naval Institute Press) and included contributions from U.S. Rep. Curt Weldon and U.S. Rep. Roscoe Bartlett.