Wednesday, March 04, 2009

EMP Vulnerability: Could Advanced Electronics be the Achilles' Heel of our Western Civilization?

Terrorists with nukes are bad enough. But what about bombs, nuclear and non-nuclear, that create an Electromagnetic pulse (EMP)?

I had mentioned in my earlier post the American Starfish Prime 1.44 megaton nuclear test explosion in 1962, in space above the earth's atmosphere, and it's EMP effect on Hawaii. That same year, the Soviets did a similar test over Kazakhstan. Their bomb was only 300 kilotons, about one fifth the size of the Starfish Prime bomb, yet the EMP damage was more extensive. Why? Because they did it above a heavily populated area, and because it was also in the northern hemisphere where the Earth's magnetic field was very strong, which amplified the EMP effects, giving the smaller explosion a much stronger EMP!

An atomic bomb detonated high in or above the Earth's atmosphere could be used in a northern location to take advantage of the strength of the Earth's magnetic field to amplify the effect and spread it southward. The diagram below illustrates what such an EMP spread pattern might look like:

The above diagram shows us something called the Compton effect. The scenario it illustrates in this particular picture, is similar to one I read about recently in the September 2008 issue of Hillsdale college's Imprimis:

Ballistic Missile Defense is Not Yet Reality
[...] Consider Iran. President Ahmadinejad and his Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) have control of key strategic parts of the Iranian government, and the IRGC is capable of operating as a terrorist training unit both inside and outside of Iran (witness Iran’s support of Hezbollah in Lebanon and its backing of lethal attacks on Americans in Iraq). For the past decade, Iran—with the assistance of Russia, China, and North Korea—has been developing missile technology. It is believed that the Iranians have produced hundreds of Shahab-3 missiles. This is not the most sophisticated missile in the world, but it is capable of carrying a payload to Israel or—if launched from a ship—to an American city.

The current controversy over Iran’s nuclear production is really about whether it can produce an industrial infrastructure that would be capable of producing nuclear warheads. It has sought nuclear capability since the time of the Shah, as most nations do, since nuclear weapons bestow on a country great military and political power. Even a fully democratic and pro-western Iran would want such weapons.

Mr. Ahmadinejad said in 2005: “Is it possible for us to witness a world without America and Zionism? But you had best know that this slogan and this goal are attainable, and surely can be achieved.” What about this do we not get?

Consider this scenario: An ordinary-looking freighter ship heading toward New York City or Los Angeles launches a missile from its hull or from a canister lowered into the sea. The missile hits a densely populated area and a million people are incinerated. The ship is sunk and no one claims responsibility. There is no firm evidence as to who sponsored the attack, and thus no one against whom to launch a counterstrike.

But as terrible as that scenario sounds, consider a second one: Let us say the freighter ship launches a nuclear-armed Shahab-3 missile off the coast of the U.S. and it explodes 300 miles over Chicago, creating an electromagnetic pulse. Gamma rays scatter in what is called the Compton effect, and three separate pulses disable consumer electronics, some automobiles, and, most importantly, the hundreds of large transformers that distribute power throughout the U.S. All of our lights, refrigerators, TVs and radios stop running. We have no communication. This is what is referred to as an EMP attack, and such an attack would effectively throw America back into the early nineteenth century. Perhaps hundreds of millions of us will die from lack of food and water and as a result of social breakdown.

Opponents of missile defense call such scenarios far fetched, on the basis that the U.S. would launch a nuclear attack against whatever nation attacks us. That is, they continue to rely on the doctrine of mutually-assured destruction that our leaders prior to Reagan relied on during the Cold War. But in my scenarios, we would not know who attacked us, so that doctrine is no help. And in any case, even if Iran could be identified as the attacker, who is to say that it wouldn’t gladly sacrifice itself to destroy the Great Satan? As the Ayatollah Khomeini said in 1979, during the American hostage crisis: “I say let [Iran] go up in smoke, provided Islam emerges triumphant in the world.”

I do not use the word “destroy” lightly: An EMP attack on the U.S. would mean the end of American civilization, and dropping nuclear weapons on or retaliating against whoever caused the attack will not bring our civilization back. Nor is this science fiction. Twice, in the Caspian Sea, the Iranians have tested their ability to launch ballistic missiles in a way to set off an EMP. And the congressionally-mandated EMP Commission, including some of America’s finest scientists, has released its findings and issued two separate reports, the most recent in July, describing the effects of such an attack on the U.S. [...]

It goes on to describe the steps we could take to protect ourselves from such an attack. And the reasons we are not taking them.

Both China and Russia see America as an obstacle to expanding their global influence. Both are working on and advancing space weapons that could be used against us. We could be working on space based missile defense systems, but we are told we must not, because it could "upset" China and Russia.

As if that is not bad enough, we have increased our own vulnerability needlessly. Computer chip Technology, which is highly vulnerable to EMP forces, has been incorporated into many items what previously worked fine without them.

Take automobiles, for instance. Cars made before 1985, that don't use computer chips, would be largely impervious to an EMP attack. Cars made after that date would be rendered useless. Cars don't conceptually NEED computer chips to function, but the way they are designed and made now, they depend on them. Computer chips are now even being incorporated into the most ordinary things, even light switches. They are in almost everything. It's become a needless liability of our own making.

And to be effective, an EMP attack doesn't even have to be as large scale as the attack pictured in the diagram. Even one attack on a city on our coastline, or on a city anywhere in the world, would create panic and instability in an already unstable global market place. Several attacks, even more so.

People often think our civilization could only end from a massive war. But in truth, it could be more like "Death by a thousand cuts". Multiple, continuous small EMP attacks could impair our ability to function normally, till we no longer can.

It should be obvious why it's important to curtail rogue states who are attempting to acquire these weapons, and the countries that support them. And there is so much more we could do to defend ourselves. But will we? Or are the majority of us going to keep living our lives like we're in some unreal TV drama, living and breathing BS, until one day the lights go out, perhaps for decades, and we have a very rude awakening?

President Obama wants to drop our shield plan in order to placate Russia, in hopes they will assist us in containing Iran. Russia clearly has other plans, and is indicating that it wants nothing to do with that idea.

Our President should take note of some relevant facts about Russia, such as Russia's quickly shifting demographics, that demonstrate that the country will soon have a Muslim majority, making it a Muslim nation. With access to all of Russia's weapons technology and resources.

Pakistan already has nuclear technology, and it is inevitable that other Muslim nations will obtain it as well. I don't say that all Muslim states with nuclear capabilities are a threat to us, but clearly some rogue states like Iran are not only a threat to us but to the stability of the Middle East. As this technological capability spreads throughout the world, we are going to need every advantage available to us to contain it among peaceful nations, and protect ourselves as much as is humanly possible.

Now is not the time to back down on missile defense systems. We should in fact, be doing every thing we can do develop it quickly. We should also be doing all we can to make our electrical infrastructure less vulnerable to EMP attacks.

I've said generally that foreign policy has not been a strong point for Democrats, and I can't say that I like what I've seen from them so far. But I live in hope. A strong Democrat that gets the job done on these issues? That would be A Change I Could Believe In. For all our sakes.

More information from Wikipedia: Electromagnetic bomb
[...] The electromagnetic pulse was first observed during high-altitude nuclear weapon detonations.

Electromagnetic weapons are still mostly classified and research surrounding them is highly secret. Military speculators and experts generally think that E-bombs use explosively pumped flux compression generator technology as their power source, though a relatively small (10 kt) nuclear bomb, exploded between 30 and 300 miles in the atmosphere could send out enough power to damage electronics from coast to coast in the US. The US Army Corps of Engineers issued a publicly available pamphlet in the late 1990s that discusses in detail how to harden a facility against "HEMP" - high frequency electromagnetic pulse. It describes how water pipes, antennas, electrical lines, and windows allow EMP to enter a building.

According to some reports, the U.S. Navy used experimental E-bombs during the 1991 Gulf War. These bombs utilized warheads that converted the energy of conventional explosives into a pulse of radio energy.[2] CBS News also reported that the U.S. dropped an E-bomb on Iraqi TV during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but this has not been confirmed.[3]

The Soviet Union conducted significant research into producing nuclear weapons specially designed for upper atmospheric detonations, a decision that was later followed by the United States and the United Kingdom. Only the Soviets ultimately produced any significant quantity of such warheads, most of which were disarmed following the Reagan-era arms talks. [citation needed] EMP-specialized nuclear weapon designs belong to the third generation of nuclear weapons. [...]

"Most" of them were disarmed? Have some been sold? Has the technology to build new ones been sold? Who would be interested in building and using new ones? Take a guess.

The effects of such devices are sometimes exaggerated and/or misrepresented in fiction and bad journalism. Much depends on the power of the the device, the type of bomb, it's altitude and it's location in the Earth's magnetic field.

Follow the link for a definition of EMP bombs, nuclear and non-nuclear, and the details of the effects of such devices.

Some videos on, parts 1 and 2. Both are about 7 minutes long:

This video has some startling information about EMPs. It seems that since the end of the Cold War, the US military has really slacked off on protecting military installations and equipment from EMP forces, and our society in general has become more reliant on highly vulnerable technologies.

The Russians had developed EMP bombs as small as a beer can. Not all of them have been accounted for since the demise of the USSR. Such devices could be used in a busy airport, to blind air traffic, or in the NYC stock exchange, causing trillions of dollars in losses. It's a new world with new threats, but are we keeping up?

This 2nd video illustrates my point above, about modern automobiles. You get to see what happens to a modern car driven under an EMP pulse device, that simulates a high altitude pulse.

After the pulse, the car stops. It won't start. But it's battery is still working; the electric windows work, because they are simple motors. A few lights in the dashboard work, but everything else is dead, because they are needlessly tied into either transistors or computer chips. A vehicle that could be impervious is made unnecessarily vulnerable. Can't we change this?

Related Links:

High altitude nuclear explosion

High-Altitude Electromagnetic Pulse (HEMP): A Threat to Our Way of Life

Starfish Prime: A 1962 Nuclear Experiment with new relevance for contemporary technology

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