[extropy-chat] EMP Attack?

Olga Bourlin fauxever at sprynet.com
Sun Apr 17 15:10:52 UTC 2005


Unready For This Attack

By Jon Kyl

Saturday, April 16, 2005; Page A19

Recently a Senate Judiciary subcommittee of which I am chairman held a 
hearing on a major threat to the American people, one that could come not 
only from terrorist organizations such as al Qaeda but from rogue nations 
such as Iran and North Korea.

An electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack on the American homeland, said one of 
the distinguished scientists who testified at the hearing, is one of only a 
few ways that the United States could be defeated by its enemies - terrorist 
or otherwise. And it is probably the easiest. A single Scud  missile, 
carrying a single nuclear weapon, detonated at the appropriate  altitude, 
would interact with the Earth's atmosphere, producing an  electromagnetic 
pulse radiating down to the surface at the speed of light.  Depending on the 
location and size of the blast, the effect would be to knock out already 
stressed power grids and other electrical systems across much or even all of 
the continental United States, for months if not years.

Few if any people would die right away. But the loss of power would have a 
cascading effect on all aspects of U.S. society. Communication would be 
largely impossible. Lack of refrigeration would leave food rotting in 
warehouses, exacerbated by a lack of transportation as those vehicles still
working simply ran out of gas (which is pumped with electricity). The 
inability to sanitize and distribute water would quickly threaten public
health, not to mention the safety of anyone in the path of the inevitable 
fires, which would rage unchecked. And as we have seen in areas of natural 
and other disasters, such circumstances often result in a fairly rapid 
breakdown of social order.

American society has grown so dependent on computer and other electrical 
systems that we have created our own Achilles' heel of vulnerability, 
ironically much greater than those of other, less developed nations. When 
deprived of power, we are in many ways helpless, as the New York City 
blackout made clear. In that case, power was restored quickly because 
adjacent areas could provide help. But a large-scale burnout caused by a 
broad EMP attack would create a much more difficult situation. Not only 
would there be nobody nearby to help, it could take years to replace 
destroyed equipment.

Transformers for regional substations, for example, are massive pieces of 
equipment that are no longer manufactured in the United States and typically 
take more than a year to build. In the words of another witness at the 
hearing, "The longer the basic outage, the more problematic and uncertain 
the recovery of any [infrastructure system] will be. It is possible --  
indeed, seemingly likely -- for sufficiently severe functional outages to 
become mutually reinforcing, until a point at which the degradation . . . 
could have irreversible effects on the country's ability to support any 
large fraction of its present human population." Those who survived, he 
said, would find themselves transported back to the United States of the 

This threat may sound straight out of Hollywood, but it is very real. CIA 
Director Porter Goss recently testified before Congress about nuclear 
material missing from storage sites in Russia that may have found its way 
into terrorist hands, and FBI Director Robert Mueller has confirmed new 
intelligence that suggests al Qaeda is trying to acquire and use weapons of 
mass destruction. Iran has surprised intelligence analysts by describing the 
mid-flight detonations of missiles fired from ships on the Caspian Sea as 
"successful" tests. North Korea exports missile technology around the world; 
Scuds can easily be purchased on the open market for about $100,000 apiece.

A terrorist organization might have trouble putting a nuclear warhead "on 
target" with a Scud, but it would be much easier to simply launch and 
detonate in the atmosphere. No need for the risk and difficulty of trying to 
smuggle a nuclear weapon over the border or hit a particular city. Just 
launch a cheap missile from a freighter in international waters -- al Qaeda 
is believed to own about 80 such vessels -- and make sure to get it a few 
miles in the air.

Fortunately, hardening key infrastructure systems and procuring vital backup 
equipment such as transformers is both feasible and -- compared with the 
threat -- relatively inexpensive, according to a comprehensive report on the 
EMP threat by a commission of prominent experts. But it will take leadership 
by the Department of Homeland Security, the Defense Department, and other 
federal agencies, along with support from Congress, all of which have yet to 

The Sept. 11 commission report stated that our biggest failure was one of 
"imagination." No one imagined that terrorists would do what they did on 
Sept. 11. Today few Americans can conceive of the possibility that 
terrorists could bring our society to its knees by destroying everything we 
rely on that runs on electricity. But this time we've been warned, and we'd 
better be prepared to respond.

The writer is a Republican senator from Arizona and chairman of the Senate 
Judiciary subcommittee on terrorism, technology and homeland security.
© 2005 The Washington Post Company 

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