The recent seizure of a North Korean freighter carrying Cuban, nuclear-capable SA-2 missile components for refurbishment has resurrected the spectre of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, when another communist nation developed nuclear dealings with America’s island neighbor.
Richard Fisher, a military affairs specialist, explained the significance of the shipment, which was captured in the Panama Canal: “North Korea, a country soon to be in a position to export nuclear warhead armed ballistic missiles, now has a missile relationship with Cuba.”
Until now, there has not been extensive military cooperation between Cuba and North Korea. However, a high-level North Korean delegation recently visited Cuba, possibly resulting in a deal for Cuba to send military equipment to North Korea for refurbishment in exchange for barter payment with some 10,000 tons of sugar that was declared as the cargo.
The missile components, however, were undeclared, resulting in the Panamanian seizure, which reportedly was prompted by a tip of drugs being on board the ship.
Fisher said the shipment was part of a Cuban-North Korean military cooperation effort to upgrade each country’s SA-2s with advanced tracking electronics.
“With such upgrades, these heretofore obsolete [surface-to-air missiles, or SAMs] have been given new hard-to-counter capabilities, and the prospect of such upgrades going into the still substantial population of these SAMs began to concern the U.S. military over a decade ago,” he said.
While the SA-2 was designed to shoot down high-altitude aircraft, national security experts are further concerned it could be used for something far more devastating: a high-altitude nuclear detonation that could cause a crippling electromagnetic pulse, or EMP.
Such an EMP attack would knock out the Eastern U.S. grid system and all unprotected electronics and automated control systems, which together form the backbone of the technology-based infrastructure of the U.S., according to these sources and recent studies on the financial impact of such an event.
It was an SA-2 that downed an American U-2 on May 1, 1960, while undertaking a high-altitude reconnaissance over the then Soviet Union. The U-2 was flown by Francis Gary Powers, who was captured and put in prison for two years (another SA-2 shot down Major Rudolph Anderson’s U-2 over Cuba two years later, during the Cuban missile crisis).
Powers, who was employed by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency at the time, was aware that Soviet aircraft were not capable of reaching the altitude at which the U-2 could fly. The CIA, however, was unaware that the Soviets had developed the SA-2 or its high-altitude capabilities.
Since then, the SA-2 has been modified to make it more capable.
The SA-2 and its radar is “still in use in a lot of countries,” said James Hardy, Asia-Pacific editor of IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly, “and progressive upgrades to the radars and the missiles means it is not completely useless.”
Because the Soviet radar system remains in use, the U.S. and other countries have come up with the ability to jam its radar. However, the radar has been modified over the years to undertake “counter-counter-electronic measures (that) have been fitted to later, post-Soviet models of this radar,” Hardy said.
In looking at the potential military relationship between Pyongyang and Havana, other national security sources say that Cuba could be used as a potential base from which the North Koreans could move a freighter along the U.S. East coast to launch the missile to explode a small, high-altitude nuclear device above the highly populated region stretching from New York to Richmond, Va.
“The SA-2 is a surface-to-air anti-aircraft missile that could be used for an EMP attack, if armed with a nuclear warhead and launched from a ship near the U.S. Coast,” according to Peter Vincent Pry, a former Central Intelligence Agency analyst who was staff director of a congressionally mandated commission to look at the impact of an EMP event on the Nation’s critical infrastructures.
Pry today is executive director of the Task Force on National and Homeland Security.
In an exclusive interview with WND, Pry pointed out that the ceiling of the SA-2 is up to 35 kilometers, which goes beyond the minimum optimal height for an EMP burst.
Pry said the SA-2 could achieve this ceiling with an “HE (high explosive) warhead weighing, depending on warhead type, 200-295 kilograms, or 440-650 pounds.”
“The U.S. Cold War-era W-84 neutron warhead weighed less than 50 kilograms and could be used as an enhanced EMP weapon,” Pry said. “So, armed with a much lighter warhead for EMP attack, any of the SAM (surface-to-air missiles) variants would have a much higher operational ceiling. Indeed, the Soviets designed the SA-2 to carry a 15 kiloton nuclear warhead (weighing 650 pounds) to high altitude.”
If the SA-2 were to be used in an EMP attack on the U.S., Pry said that it “would be launched from a freighter against a big coastal city, like New York or Washington, which would probably collapse the entire Eastern grid that provides 70 percent of the nation’s electricity.”
The Nation’s missile defense system, Pry said, would not be able to intercept the SA-2 if it were launched from a ship, since the flight time to altitude is so short. The SA-2 travels at a speed of Mach 3.5, or three times the speed of sound.
In a May 31, 2013, Pry joined former CIA Director R. James Woolsey in writing an article for The Wall Street Journal outlining how North Korea could cripple the U.S. with an EMP attack.
In the article, they said that North Korea needs only a single nuclear warhead “in order to pose an existential threat to the U.S. … Detonating a nuclear weapon high above any part of the U.S. mainland would generate a catastrophic electromagnetic pulse.”
“An EMP attack,” they said, “would collapse the electric grid and other infrastructure that depends on it – communications, transportation, banking and finance, food and water – necessary to sustain modern civilization and the lives of 300 million Americans.”
They pointed out that EMP effects could be even “more powerful and more catastrophic by using an Enhanced Radiation Warhead,” they wrote. “This is a low-yield nuclear weapon designed not to create a devastating explosion, but to emit large amounts of radiation including the gamma rays that generate the EMP effect that fries electronics.”
Following a nuclear test last December and a successful missile test earlier this year, North Korea began making public threats to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike against the U.S.
To underscore this threat, Pyongyang issued highly publicized videos showing a nuclear detonation over New York City and Washington, D.C.
A September 2007 study by The Sage Policy Group estimated that the financial cost of an EMP event just from Baltimore, Md., Washington, D.C., to Richmond, VA, would approach $800 billion. In today’s dollars, the cost could surpass a trillion dollars.
“Various government reports, such as the one by the U.S. Congressional EMP Commission and the Congressional Research Service, have confirmed the growing likelihood of EMP events of various kinds,” the report said.
“These reports and related Congressional testimony support the contention that relatively available and inexpensive SCUD type missiles are capable of carrying the required payload that could be launched from a small ship 200 or more miles off the East Coast of the United States and detonated between 30 and 80 miles high,” the report said.
“Any EMP-inflicted damage delivered from this altitude would extend out hundreds of miles beyond the region considered in this study, significantly complicating the recovery process and the restoration of economic activity while producing economic consequences roughly 10 times greater than those impacting the Baltimore-Washington-Richmond region,” the study said at the time.