Nuke Over U. S. Could Unleash Electromagnetic
SPECIAL TO WORLD TRIBUNE.COM
Wednesday, December 7, 2005. 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
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
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
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'
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
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
The result is an enormous pulsed current of high energy
electrons that will interact, in turn, with the earth's
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
any unprotected computers and microchips. all the
systems that depend on electricity and electronics,
from medical instruments to military
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
The systems at risk from EMP include: electronic
control, sensor, and protective systems of all kinds,
computers and cell phones, cars, boats, airplanes, and
the infrastructures for handling electric power,
telecommunications, transportation, fuel and energy,
banking and finance, emergency services, and even food
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
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
Their efforts seemed futile. In 1997, Gen. Robert Marsh
(then- chairman of the Commission on Critical
Infrastructure Protection) told the House Armed
[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
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
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
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
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.