WASHINGTON – More than four years after a stunning report about America’s vulnerability to a nuclear electromagnetic pulse attack was released to Congress, the House Armed Services Committee will hear testimony from the scientist who issued the warning and who believes Iran is pursuing such an option.
William R. Graham, President Reagan’s top science adviser and the chairman of the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack, will update the committee Thursday morning.
Graham warned in 2005 that Iran was not only covertly developing nuclear weapons, but was already testing ballistic missiles specifically designed to destroy America’s technical infrastructure with the aim of neutralizing the world’s lone superpower.
The radical Shiite regime has conducted successful tests to determine if its Shahab-3 ballistic missiles, capable of carrying a nuclear warhead, can be detonated by a remote-control device while still in high-altitude flight, Graham said in his report.
Graham said then there was no other plausible explanation for such tests than preparation for the deployment of electromagnetic pulse weapons – even one of which could knock out America’s critical electrical and technological infrastructure, effectively sending the continental U.S. back to the 19th century with a recovery time of months or years.
Iran would have that capability – at least theoretically – as soon as it has one nuclear bomb ready to arm such a missile.
The stunning report was first published in Joseph Farah’s G2 Bulletin, the premium, online intelligence newsletter published by WND’s founder.
Iran surprised intelligence analysts by describing the mid-flight detonations of missiles fired from ships on the Caspian Sea as “successful” tests. Even primitive Scud missiles could be used for this purpose. And top U.S. intelligence officials reminded members of Congress that there is a glut of these missiles on the world market. They are currently being bought and sold for about $100,000 apiece.
Others agree with Graham’s sobering assessment.
“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,” wrote Sen. John Kyl, R-Ariz., in the Washington Post in 2005 after reading Graham’s report. “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-Qaida is believed to own about 80 such vessels – and make sure to get it a few miles in the air.”
The Iranian missile tests were more sophisticated and capable of detonation at higher elevations – making them more dangerous.
Detonated at a height of 60 to 500 kilometers above the continental U.S., one nuclear warhead could cripple the country – knocking out electrical power and circuit boards and rendering the U.S. domestic communications impotent.
In 2005, the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Terrorism, Technology and Homeland Security chaired by Kyl, held a hearing on the electromagnetic pulse, or EMP, threat.
“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,” wrote Kyl “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.”
The purpose of an EMP attack, unlike a nuclear attack on land, is not to kill people, but “to kill electrons,” as Graham explained. He serves as chairman of the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse Attack and was director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
Graham told WND he could think of no other reason for Iran to be experimenting with mid-air detonation of missiles than for the planning of an EMP-style attack.
“EMP offers a bigger bang for the buck,” he said. He also suggested such an attack makes a U.S. nuclear response against a suspected enemy less likely than would the detonation of a nuclear bomb in a major U.S. city.
A 2004 report by the commission found “several potential adversaries have or can acquire the capability to attack the United States with a high-altitude nuclear weapons-generated electromagnetic pulse (EMP). A determined adversary can achieve an EMP attack capability without having a high level of sophistication.”
“EMP is one of a small number of threats that can hold our society at risk of catastrophic consequences,” the report said. “EMP will cover the wide geographic region within line of sight to the nuclear weapon. It has the capability to produce significant damage to critical infrastructures and thus to the very fabric of U.S. society, as well as to the ability of the United States and Western nations to project influence and military power.”
The major impact of EMP weapons is on electronics, “so pervasive in all aspects of our society and military, coupled through critical infrastructures,” explained the report.
“Their effects on systems and infrastructures dependent on electricity and electronics could be sufficiently ruinous as to qualify as catastrophic to the nation,” Lowell Wood, acting chairman of the commission, told members of Congress.
The commission report went so far as to suggest, in its opening sentence, that an EMP attack “might result in the defeat of our military forces.”
“Briefly, a single nuclear weapon exploded at high altitude above the United States will interact with the Earth’s atmosphere, ionosphere and magnetic field to produce an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) radiation down to the Earth and additionally create electrical currents in the Earth,” said the report. “EMP effects are both direct and indirect. The former are due to electrical systems, and the latter arise from the damage that ‘shocked’ – upset, damaged and destroyed – electronics controls then inflict on the systems in which they are embedded. The indirect effects can be even more severe than the direct effects.”
The EMP threat is not a new one considered by U.S. defense planners. The Soviet Union had experimented with the idea as a kind of super-weapon against the U.S.
“What is different now is that some potential sources of EMP threats are difficult to deter – they can be terrorist groups that have no state identity, have only one or a few weapons and are motivated to attack the U.S. without regard for their own safety,” explains the commission report. “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.”
Graham describes the potential “cascading effect” of an EMP attack. If electrical power is knocked out and circuit boards fried, telecommunications are disrupted, energy deliveries are impeded, the financial system breaks down, food, water and gasoline become scarce.
As Kyl put it: “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,” the senator wrote. “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.”
The commission said hardening key infrastructure systems and procuring vital backup equipment such as transformers is both feasible and – compared with the threat – relatively inexpensive.
“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 materialize,” wrote Kyl, so far the only elected official blowing the whistle this alarming development.
Kyl concluded in his report: “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.”