Wednesday, February 17, 2016

EMP: something to worry about

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. If you remember the movie “War Games,” that was basically it.
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 or military base, they may obtain the greatest political-military utility from one or a few such weapons by using them—or threatening their use—in an EMP attack.
EMP will cover the wide region within line of sight to the nuclear weapon. 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.
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. Rogue states, such as North Korea and Iran, may also be developing the capability to pose an EMP threat to the United States, and may also be unpredictable and difficult to deter.
Certain types of relatively low-yield nuclear weapons can be employed to generate potentially catastrophic EMP effects over wide geographic areas, and designs for such weapons may have been illicitly trafficked for a quarter-century.
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.
An Electromagnetic Pulse attack could result in the greatest loss of life in human history, but most people have never heard of an EMP.

An EMP can be triggered by detonating a nuclear warhead above the earth’s atmosphere, which would release a pulse of energy that could destroy electrical grids and electronics such as cell phones and computers over a thousand-mile radius.

“What happens when, when the grid comes down, is there are surges of electricity that blow the big transformers,” Roscoe Bartlett, a former member of the House of Representatives who spearheaded the creation of a Congressional EMP Commission, said. “The estimate is that we could lose somewhere between 100 and 200 of those; that means that the grid would be down for a year or more.”

The Congressional EMP Commission reported that after such an attack Americans would face starvation, a lack of clean water, 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.