A rogue state or terrorists could launch an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack on the United States that would kill more Americans than a nuclear strike on a major city, but an EMP attack on the homeland could be defeated with a missile defense system, a noted expert said.
That could involve The Boeing Co. [BA] Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, or it could involve using the Lockheed Martin Corp. [LMT] Aegis sea-based ballistic missile defense system that uses the Raytheon Co. [RTN] Standard Missile interceptors, according to William R. Graham, chairman of the commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse Attack. He conducted a seminar on EMP at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank.
Rep. Roscoe Bartlett of Maryland, ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee seapower and expeditionary forces subcommittee, is the foremost expert in Congress on the EMP threat, and has been a major supporter of the commission, Graham noted. Bartlett’s expertise must be taken seriously, Graham said. He responded to a question from Space & Missile Defense Report as to whether an EMP attack could be defeated by employing missile defense technology that would be aimed inward, toward the interior of the nation, rather than being focused mainly on threats from abroad such as enemy missiles incoming from Asia or the Middle East.
Bartlett has pointed out that all a terrorist group would need to do to cause an EMP attack would be to smuggle one missile with a nuclear warhead into the United States, then take it by truck to Iowa or North Dakota. There, the missile would be launched straight up, and the nuclear weapon detonated at an altitude of about 300 miles.
That would create an EMP of immense proportions, covering the continental United States (lower 48), Mexico and much of Canada.
Smuggling such a weapon might be accomplished by secreting it within one of the millions of cargo containers entering U.S. shipping ports each year, or by shipping the missile to, say, Mexico, and then taking it on a private boat or other vessel to slip onto the thousands of miles of U.S. coastline or shoreline. Graham said he and the commission haven’t examined how easy it might be to smuggle a weapon into the country.
Graham said that Bartlett’s warning is spot on, and such an attack could be launched within the United States. And, Graham said, it could be even worse: terrorists or a rogue state might be able to create an EMP over almost as large an area as the attack Bartlett described by launching a nuclear-tipped missile from aboard a ship offshore, well outside the United States, and having the missile rise to an altitude of 300 miles, then detonating.
That plan of attack, he said, would mean the attackers wouldn’t even have to worry about smuggling the missile into the United States.
"I would also be concerned about things that stay offshore," Graham said.
The Missile Defense Agency at this point hasn’t been charged with defeating EMP attacks by a missile launched within the United States. Rather, it is charged with creating a multi-layered missile defense shield against missiles from abroad.
Graham said the advanced Aegis ballistic missile defense system could counter an EMP missile attack from outside the United States, or — with addition of some inward-focused radars to provide augmented sensor data — from within the nation.
During his presentation, Graham made clear that the EMP threat isn’t to be taken lightly, especially since an EMP attack would kill many more Americans than a nuclear attack on a city.
Although an EMP nuclear device detonating at a high altitude wouldn’t kill Americans with heat, blast or radiation, it would be even more deadly by destroying electrical generating capacity over immense areas of the nation, and also by destroying many electronics systems.
Electrical power grids would go dead. Most vehicles ranging from small cars to the giant trucks that bring food to cities would stop running (except for very old vehicles with points and distributors instead of computerized ignition systems). People in cities without food would starve to death. Many military posts, computers and intelligence operations would go dark. Planes could fall from the sky. Drinking water systems would stop working. Hospitals and other medical facilities wouldn’t function. Police, fire and ambulance services could be non-existent.
A key point here, Graham noted, is how the U.S. national infrastructure is interconnected: the oil and gas industry supplies fuel for the electrical power industry, which supplies electricity needed to operate the communications, transport, water, emergency services, banking and finance sectors, and governmental agencies.
That means an EMP attack would create "a cascading failure of the electronics-dependent infrastructure."
The electrical power, energy, transport, telecommunications and financial systems are "particularly vulnerable" to EMP attack, he said. Ironically, EMP could damage safety systems designed to halt damage to those systems, and those safety systems themselves could damage the infrastructure they are intended to protect.
Another problem, Graham said, is that a rogue nation responsible for an EMP attack might conclude, perhaps erroneously, that the United States would be less likely to mount an all-out nuclear response than if the rogue nation sent a missile that destroyed a U.S. city in a nuclear blast.
Also, he said, rogue states or terrorists might think launching an EMP attack might create an image of the United States as vulnerable or behind the curve, much as happened after the former Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first satellite.
And those considering launching an EMP attack might include more than just terrorists or rogue states.
For example, Graham continued, Chinese writings describe EMP as the key to victory in a Chinese attack on Taiwan, outlining how an EMP attack might be used against a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier group attempting to assist Taiwan in repelling an invasion.
Worldwide, knowledge about EMP and how to create it is spreading rapidly. Such expertise is possessed by Taiwan, Egypt, India, Pakistan, Iran and North Korea, Graham said.
Iran has launched multiple missiles in a salvo attack; launched a missile from a submerged submarine; supplied rockets and missiles to terrorists who fired them into Israel; and announced plans for a space program that would involve much the same technologies as an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).
Further, Iran refuses to cease its nuclear materials production program, despite sanctions against Tehran. While Iran claims the fissile materials are for peaceful electrical generation, Western leaders fear they will be used to fashion nuclear weapons.
And Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said Israel should be wiped from the map, and that Israel shall soon cease to exist.
North Korea has built nuclear weapons and tested one underground. It also has fired multiple missiles in salvo tests. It is developing a Taepo Dong-2 ICBM that could strike U.S. cities. And in the 1990s, North Korea fired a missile that arced over Japan and landed in the sea.
While North Korea partially demolished the Yongbyon reactor that produced plutonium for atomic weapons, it hasn’t turned over even one nuclear weapon to international inspectors, and it hasn’t explained the presence of traces of highly enriched uranium on pages of documents turned over to Western officials.
Graham noted that Russian, Chinese and Pakistani experts have been working in North Korea, and could enable the isolated regime to develop an EMP weapon in the near future.
Further, terrorists have been found possessing literature on EMP, and also on directed energy weapons, Graham said.
Russian generals in 2004 described an enhanced EMP that would involve a high clout, 200 kilovolts per meter.
One question the commission didn’t answer, Graham said, is "the likelihood that anyone would" launch an EMP attack.
But clearly, he said, the nation should be taking steps now to shield its infrastructure against an EMP attack, and against cyber attacks by hackers invading computer systems.
Another weak point is that if major electrical grid transformers are damaged by EMP, it could take years to replace them, and many of them are made in other nations, not the United States.
"We’re very worried about the power system going down and not being able to recover" from an EMP attack rapidly, he said.
Another weak point in the electrical system and many other key infrastructure elements is that they are run by supervisory control systems, robots that take the place of people. Many of the supervisory systems — which are electronics-filled boxes — is that they have wires projecting from them, and wires can serve as antennae to attract an EMP and send it into the boxes to destroy electronics, he said.
Those wires should be shielded from EMP, he said. These and other protective actions are vital, he said.
"By taking relatively modest steps, the EMP threat can be reduced to manageable levels," Graham said. Where competitive pressures might bar investment in protective moves, then the government should step in with regulations, he said.
To read reports of the EMP commission in full, please go to http://www.empcommission.org on the Web.