Lights Out: EMP Warfare

Remember that guy that you made fun of because he got all caught up in the Y2K scare and wasted his money on water purification equipment, dried food and backup generators?  Turns out he may be having the last laugh.

Last month, the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse released a 200-page report detailing the potential effects of an Electromagnetic Pulse, (EMP), attack on the continental US. 

At this point you may be wondering what EMP is and how it ties in with the survivalist who's having a laugh on us. 

Electromagnetic Pulse is a brief, intense surge of electromagnetic radiation emanating from a nuclear explosion.  The electrical and magnetic fields within this pulse often cause fatal voltage surges in electrical/electronic equipment, leaving previously functioning systems degraded or disabled.  The pulse moves at the speed of light and is effective across the entire visible horizon from the point of detonation.  On a lighter note, it doesn't harm people, physical structures, etc., just anything with wiring that runs - entirely or partially - on electricity.  

So no one dies, we light a few candles, how bad could it be? 

Bad indeed - quoting from the official Commission report:

"Should significant parts of the electrical power infrastructure be lost for any substantial period of time, the commission believes that the consequences are likely to be catastrophic, and many people may ultimately die for lack of the basic elements necessary to sustain life in dense urban and suburban communities."

But how likely is it that a terrorist would be able to disable "significant parts of the electrical power infrastructure"?  Wouldn't something like this be more of a local phenomenon?

If you refer back to the definition of EMP you'll see that one of the key factors determining the scope of the event is "the visible horizon from the point of detonation".  A nuclear bomb blast in, or directly above, Kansas City would have a fairly localized EMP effect, (as well as catastrophic heat, radiation and blast effects to the inhabitants).  The same explosion occurring 275 miles above the city would leave the townspeople untouched but could create an electromagnetic pulse that would disable or serious degrade the great majority of all machinery and electronics across the continental United States.

So imagine it's a half an hour after this has occurred.  Your hometown has gone dark; the same for telephone service, radio, and TV.  You have no real idea what has happened, nor does anyone else.  You try to take a drive around to assess the situation but realize the ignition system in your car's been fried as well.  The family dines by candlelight on canned food that night, and you begin the long wait for emergency responders from the unaffected area to arrive and set everything straight.  Except - and here's the scary part - there is no unaffected area.  Everyone else is sitting around waiting for the same people, who are themselves waiting for hypothetical people to arrive from somewhere else as well.  Picture post Katrina New Orleans and stretch it out to cover the majority of the North American continent - that's the worst-case scenario.

But there's no floodwaters, no hurricane force winds, nobody's been harmed - where's the calamity?

There's no calamity the first night, maybe not for the first 72 hours.  But at some point there's no more water pressure at your house.  You check with a neighbor, same thing.  Pretty soon you realize there's no more water pressure anywhere.  Word gets back to you from the guy a couple of blocks over who works at Water and Power that whatever happened destroyed the distribution turbines and all the PLCs and wiring in the computers that run the system.  There's water in the reservoir 75 miles away, but it's not going to be showing up at your house anytime soon.

The perishables in the refrigerator are gone or spoiled and the canned food starts running low so you grab your wheel barrel and walk a few miles to local supermarket.  You arrive an hour later to find scores of your fellow citizens, nervous and forlorn staring at the looted remains.  There's nothing much left of value and as you're poking around inside you hear gunshots in the distance.  Who's shooting at who?  No way to tell, so you hightail it home to your thirsty frightened family and take stock of your remaining food and drink, only now beginning to appreciate the magnitude of the situation.

Think about the area you live in.  If you had no outside sources of food or water how well would you fair?  I'm sure there may be an outdoorsman in Arkansas that would make out OK, but he's not the norm for great majority of America.

You've heard of "Just in Time" inventory systems?  That's the world economy.  People growing crops, using machinery and electronics to water them, a vast network of sorting, storage and transportation equipment that move that ear of corn to your local market where it is casually examined and placed in your cart for purchase.  Everything of value that you consume or depend on likely has its own amazingly complex supply chain. 

So what can we do other than add this to a list of 21st century existential worries?

There are several things - some short term, others ongoing.

  1. The US military should continue to harden it forces against the threat of EMP.  Some work has been done, but large segments of the military infrastructure could be crippled by a relatively small attack.
  2. The government should shift priorities in Homeland Security and begin to give this scenario a higher ranking for planning and corrective action. 
  3. Key utilities, medical assets, emergency responder bases, etc. must be identified and hardened against the possibility of an EMP attack.  New installations and/or equipment replacement in identified assets should be routinely EMP resistant.
  4. Non-proliferation of nuclear weapons - especially to rogue and/or terror sponsor states like Iran - must remain a primary foreign policy objective.
  5. Missile defense research and development must remain a primary foreign policy objective.
  6. Efforts - both military and diplomatic - to bring rogue states and non-state actors into the realm of the rule of law, where through reason or coercion, terrorist attacks are prevented, must remain a primary foreign policy objective.
  7. The United States should establish and clearly communicate a policy and response to an EMP attack.  The "non-lethal" nature of this threat, as well as the lack of a defined policy may tempt potential adversaries into pursuing this avenue for lack of sufficient deterrence.

The scary part of this scenario, (as if you need another), is that the very things that made a ballistic missile attack against the US by a rogue nation unlikely, (that being, lack of sophisticated missiles, telemetry and guidance, etc), are not significant factors in this type of attack.  In the "scud in a bucket" scenario, a nuclear weapon is paired with an existing, low precision, missile system and launched from a ship off the coast of the US to detonate mid-flight at the apogee of it's trajectory, somewhere over the continental US.

There are even indications that Iranian military and political leadership have considered this very scenario.  Would they actually try it?  How close are they to being able to achieve it?  No one really knows. 

The possibility of an EMP attack is a very real threat to the economy and physical infrastructure of this country.  There is considerable debate as to the severity of an attack with many factors to consider, (single vs. multiple warheads, warhead yield, distance from the blast, type and configuration of the equipment exposed, etc.).  But even if the worst-case scenario is overstated and an attack simply severely degrades the infrastructure of half the Eastern seaboard, the result would still be catastrophic.

The odds of this happening on any given day are exceedingly low, but the consequences if it were to occur are unthinkable.  We must begin to respond to this threat in a long-term, coherent fashion, or one day you may wake to find that the world as you've come to know it has ceased to exist and that you're settling in for what may be a very long wait for things to get back to the incredibly complicated, interconnected miracle that we call "normal".

David Bueche, a reformed liberal, blogs regularly at Compassionate Warmonger

Remember that guy that you made fun of because he got all caught up in the Y2K scare and wasted his money on water purification equipment, dried food and backup generators?  Turns out he may be having the last laugh.

Last month, the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse released a 200-page report detailing the potential effects of an Electromagnetic Pulse, (EMP), attack on the continental US. 

At this point you may be wondering what EMP is and how it ties in with the survivalist who's having a laugh on us. 

Electromagnetic Pulse is a brief, intense surge of electromagnetic radiation emanating from a nuclear explosion.  The electrical and magnetic fields within this pulse often cause fatal voltage surges in electrical/electronic equipment, leaving previously functioning systems degraded or disabled.  The pulse moves at the speed of light and is effective across the entire visible horizon from the point of detonation.  On a lighter note, it doesn't harm people, physical structures, etc., just anything with wiring that runs - entirely or partially - on electricity.  

So no one dies, we light a few candles, how bad could it be? 

Bad indeed - quoting from the official Commission report:

"Should significant parts of the electrical power infrastructure be lost for any substantial period of time, the commission believes that the consequences are likely to be catastrophic, and many people may ultimately die for lack of the basic elements necessary to sustain life in dense urban and suburban communities."

But how likely is it that a terrorist would be able to disable "significant parts of the electrical power infrastructure"?  Wouldn't something like this be more of a local phenomenon?

If you refer back to the definition of EMP you'll see that one of the key factors determining the scope of the event is "the visible horizon from the point of detonation".  A nuclear bomb blast in, or directly above, Kansas City would have a fairly localized EMP effect, (as well as catastrophic heat, radiation and blast effects to the inhabitants).  The same explosion occurring 275 miles above the city would leave the townspeople untouched but could create an electromagnetic pulse that would disable or serious degrade the great majority of all machinery and electronics across the continental United States.

So imagine it's a half an hour after this has occurred.  Your hometown has gone dark; the same for telephone service, radio, and TV.  You have no real idea what has happened, nor does anyone else.  You try to take a drive around to assess the situation but realize the ignition system in your car's been fried as well.  The family dines by candlelight on canned food that night, and you begin the long wait for emergency responders from the unaffected area to arrive and set everything straight.  Except - and here's the scary part - there is no unaffected area.  Everyone else is sitting around waiting for the same people, who are themselves waiting for hypothetical people to arrive from somewhere else as well.  Picture post Katrina New Orleans and stretch it out to cover the majority of the North American continent - that's the worst-case scenario.

But there's no floodwaters, no hurricane force winds, nobody's been harmed - where's the calamity?

There's no calamity the first night, maybe not for the first 72 hours.  But at some point there's no more water pressure at your house.  You check with a neighbor, same thing.  Pretty soon you realize there's no more water pressure anywhere.  Word gets back to you from the guy a couple of blocks over who works at Water and Power that whatever happened destroyed the distribution turbines and all the PLCs and wiring in the computers that run the system.  There's water in the reservoir 75 miles away, but it's not going to be showing up at your house anytime soon.

The perishables in the refrigerator are gone or spoiled and the canned food starts running low so you grab your wheel barrel and walk a few miles to local supermarket.  You arrive an hour later to find scores of your fellow citizens, nervous and forlorn staring at the looted remains.  There's nothing much left of value and as you're poking around inside you hear gunshots in the distance.  Who's shooting at who?  No way to tell, so you hightail it home to your thirsty frightened family and take stock of your remaining food and drink, only now beginning to appreciate the magnitude of the situation.

Think about the area you live in.  If you had no outside sources of food or water how well would you fair?  I'm sure there may be an outdoorsman in Arkansas that would make out OK, but he's not the norm for great majority of America.

You've heard of "Just in Time" inventory systems?  That's the world economy.  People growing crops, using machinery and electronics to water them, a vast network of sorting, storage and transportation equipment that move that ear of corn to your local market where it is casually examined and placed in your cart for purchase.  Everything of value that you consume or depend on likely has its own amazingly complex supply chain. 

So what can we do other than add this to a list of 21st century existential worries?

There are several things - some short term, others ongoing.

  1. The US military should continue to harden it forces against the threat of EMP.  Some work has been done, but large segments of the military infrastructure could be crippled by a relatively small attack.
  2. The government should shift priorities in Homeland Security and begin to give this scenario a higher ranking for planning and corrective action. 
  3. Key utilities, medical assets, emergency responder bases, etc. must be identified and hardened against the possibility of an EMP attack.  New installations and/or equipment replacement in identified assets should be routinely EMP resistant.
  4. Non-proliferation of nuclear weapons - especially to rogue and/or terror sponsor states like Iran - must remain a primary foreign policy objective.
  5. Missile defense research and development must remain a primary foreign policy objective.
  6. Efforts - both military and diplomatic - to bring rogue states and non-state actors into the realm of the rule of law, where through reason or coercion, terrorist attacks are prevented, must remain a primary foreign policy objective.
  7. The United States should establish and clearly communicate a policy and response to an EMP attack.  The "non-lethal" nature of this threat, as well as the lack of a defined policy may tempt potential adversaries into pursuing this avenue for lack of sufficient deterrence.

The scary part of this scenario, (as if you need another), is that the very things that made a ballistic missile attack against the US by a rogue nation unlikely, (that being, lack of sophisticated missiles, telemetry and guidance, etc), are not significant factors in this type of attack.  In the "scud in a bucket" scenario, a nuclear weapon is paired with an existing, low precision, missile system and launched from a ship off the coast of the US to detonate mid-flight at the apogee of it's trajectory, somewhere over the continental US.

There are even indications that Iranian military and political leadership have considered this very scenario.  Would they actually try it?  How close are they to being able to achieve it?  No one really knows. 

The possibility of an EMP attack is a very real threat to the economy and physical infrastructure of this country.  There is considerable debate as to the severity of an attack with many factors to consider, (single vs. multiple warheads, warhead yield, distance from the blast, type and configuration of the equipment exposed, etc.).  But even if the worst-case scenario is overstated and an attack simply severely degrades the infrastructure of half the Eastern seaboard, the result would still be catastrophic.

The odds of this happening on any given day are exceedingly low, but the consequences if it were to occur are unthinkable.  We must begin to respond to this threat in a long-term, coherent fashion, or one day you may wake to find that the world as you've come to know it has ceased to exist and that you're settling in for what may be a very long wait for things to get back to the incredibly complicated, interconnected miracle that we call "normal".

David Bueche, a reformed liberal, blogs regularly at Compassionate Warmonger