WASHINGTON – A December 1998 Iranian military journal published an article titled "Electronics to Determine Fate of Future Wars," and it detailed how an electromagnetic pulse, or EMP, attack on the electronic infrastructure of the United States caused by the detonation of a nuclear bomb over the U.S. would be crippling.
"Once you confuse the enemy communication network you can also disrupt the work of the enemy command- and decision-making center," the journal said. "Even worse today when you disable a country's military high command through disruption of communications, you will, in effect, disrupt all the affairs of that country.
Advertisement - story continues below
"If the world's industrial countries fail to devise effective ways to defend themselves against dangerous electronic assaults then they will disintegrate within a few years," the Iranian journal added. "American soldiers would not be able to find food to eat nor would they be able to fire a single shot."
The journal went a step further in telling how an EMP attack on the U.S. electric infrastructure from the detonation of a nuclear bomb high above the U.S. would severely cripple the U.S.
Editor's note: Michael Maloof, author of "A Nation Forsaken," will discuss the catastrophic threat posed by an EMP attack for three hours on George Noory's "Coast-to-Coast" Thursday night, Jan. 3, the day the book is officially released nationwide.
The Iranians, who do not yet have nuclear weapons but are working on it, learned about the effects of electromagnetic pulse attacks from the history of some of the first nuclear weapons tests conducted first by the United States in 1945 and later by the Russians and Chinese, who also are expert on EMP.
Military experts say that Iran has been involved in conducting mid-air detonations which are critical to acquire the EMP effect. The tests were linked in with the launching of the Iranian Shahab III from the deck of a ship and then exploding the warhead in mid-air.
Advertisement - story continues below
Experts say that there really is no other reason to test for such mid-air explosions except to develop an EMP weapon.
In March 2005, a staff member to the U.S. EMP Commission referred to research that had been done in determining which countries had the knowledge and possible intentions of undertaking an EMP attack.
"The survey found that the physics of EMP phenomenon and the military potential of EMP attack are widely understood in the international community, as reflected in official and unofficial writings and statements," said Dr. Peter Vincent Pry before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Terrorism, Technology and Homeland Security.
He said that in addition to Iran, the following countries have knowledge about EMP and its effects following an attack: Britain, France, Germany, Israel, Egypt, Taiwan, Sweden, Cuba, India, Pakistan, Iraq, North Korea, China and Russia.
Advertisement - story continues below
"Many foreign analysts – particularly in Iran, North Korea, China and Russia – view the United States as a potential aggressor that would be willing to use its entire panoply of weapons, including nuclear weapons, in a first strike," Pry said. "They perceive the United States as having contingency plans to make a nuclear EMP attack, and as being willing to execute those plans under a broad range of circumstances."
Pry said that Russian and Chinese military scientists in open source writings describe the basic principles of nuclear weapons designed specifically to generate an enhanced-EMP effect, called Super-EMP weapons, which can destroy even the best protected U.S. military and civilian electronic systems. Both countries have been considering limited nuclear attack options that employ EMP as the primary or only means of attack.
In electromagnetic pulse, a highly intense burst of electromagnetic energy generated from a nuclear weapon, a massive solar storm or from radio-frequency, or RF, weapon, is used.
Advertisement - story continues below
In early July 2008 testimony, then-Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs James J. Shinn told the House Armed Services Committee that China, which is a threat to Taiwan, was working on exotic electromagnetic pulse weapons that can devastate electronic systems using a burst of energy similar to that produced by a nuclear blast.
"The consequence of EMP is that you destroy the communications network," Shinn said. "And we are you know, and as the Chinese also know, heavily dependent on sophisticated communications, satellite communications, in the conduct of our forces. And so, whether it's from an EMP or it's some kind of a coordinated anti-satellite effort we could be in a very bad place if the Chinese enhanced their capability in this area."
Now, the Chinese say they are developing EMP warheads on new missiles designed to hit U.S. aircraft carriers that enter into its sphere of influence in the South China Sea.
The U.S. was aware of the prospect for an electromagnetic pulse when it detonated a nuclear device on July 16, 1945, thanks to the expectation of an EMP by Enrico Fermi, an Italian-American nuclear physicist renowned for his development of the first nuclear reactor and development of quantum theory, nuclear and particle physics, among other things. In 1938, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on induced radioactivity.
According to reports at the time, all signal lines were shielded and, in many cases doubly shielded. However, many records still were lost. Similarly, a British nuclear test in 1953 resulted in instrumentation failure attributed to "radioflash," the British term for EMP.
Then in July 1962, there were several high-altitude nuclear tests known as Operation Fishbowl. They significantly advanced the knowledge of EMP effects.
One such test, called Starfish Prime, was conducted at some 400 kilometers, or 250 miles, above the Pacific Ocean.
Starfish Prime test showed that the effects of a high-altitude nuclear detonation were much larger than first thought. The effects were so significant that the detonations caused electrical damage in Hawaii almost 900 miles from the site of the detonation.
It knocked out streetlights, set off burglar alarms and damaged the microwave link of the local telephone company, according to a report by Charles N. Vittitoe of Sandia National Laboratories in a June 1989 article titled "Did High-Altitude EMP Cause the Hawaiian Streetlight Incident?"
Starfish Prime then was followed in November 1962 by two other high-altitude tests – Bluegill Triple Prime and Kingfish – which provided enough EMP data for scientists to accurately identify the physical mechanisms producing the EMPs.
While the damage in Hawaii wasn't very significant, scientists conclude that if that same explosion had occurred over the northern portion of the continental United States, damage would have been more significant due to the greater strength of the Earth's magnetic field over the U.S. At higher latitudes, there also are other anomalies that intensify the effects of an EMP.
To understand the characteristics of an EMP, scientists have divided EMP pulses into three components: E1, E2 and E3.
E1 is developed from a nuclear explosion. It is considered to be the most intense. The pulse from a nuclear explosion creates a very intense electromagnetic field of electrically charged objects. This component is produced when gamma radiation from a nuclear detonation knocks electrons out of atoms in the upper atmosphere. These electrons then travel in a downward direction at an estimated speed of 90 percent of the speed of light of 186,000 miles/second.
Damage from the E1 component is caused by electrical breakdown voltages such as insulators being overwhelmed, thereby destroying electronic components in computers and communications equipment. The intensity and speed at which the pulse hits is too quick for ordinary lightning protecters to guard the equipment.
The interaction of the Earth's magnetic field and the downward flow of electrons is what produces a very large, intense but brief electromagnetic pulse which hits within five nanoseconds.
According to experts, the process of the gamma rays knocking electrons out of the atoms at a high altitude causes this region of the atmosphere to become an electrical conductor due to ionization. The strength of the pulse will depend on intensity of the gamma rays produced by the weapon, the rapidity of the gamma ray burst from the weapon and the altitude at which the detonation occurs.
The E2 component is produced by weapon neutrons and is considered to be an intermediate time pulse. It lasts for up to a second after the beginning of the EMP. This E2 component has many similarities to EMPs produced from lightning and can easily be protected since lightning protection readily is available.
If an electronic component is protected only from an E2 pulse, an E1 pulse will destroy it.
E3 pulse is very slow, and has similarities to a geomagnetic storm caused by a solar flare. Like a geomagnetic storm, E3 can produce geomagnetically induced currents in long electrical conductors, which then can damage components such as power line transformers, according to a January 2010 report by Metatech Corporation titled "The Late-Time (E3) High-Altitude Electromagnetic Pulse (HEMP) and its impact on the U.S. Power Grid." This study was done for Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
Above the 250-mile altitude, there will be no EMP effects on earth, since the gamma rays would disperse over the longer distance. Where there is no magnetic field, there would be virtually no EMP.
Up to 250 miles above the earth over Kansas, for example, scientists say that the effects of an EMP pulse would cover virtually the entire continental United States.
"Since it is a geometrical line-of-sight effect, a detonation at a height of a few hundred kilometers would encompass within its line of sight essentially the entire United States, with the effect growing weaker the larger the distance from the burst point," according to Dr. Michael J. Frankel, who was executive director of the EMP Commission.
"For assessment purposes, a SCUD class missile launched from a nearby offshore location might reach a height of about 100 kilometers, sufficient to encompass within its effects footprint most of the eastern seaboard, with its great density of people and infrastructure," he said.
In recognizing this threat, especially if such countries as North Korea and Iran acquired nuclear weapons, Congress under Title XIV of the Floyd D. Spence National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, for Fiscal Year 2001 had established the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse Attack, also referred to as the EMP Commission.
The provision originally was sponsored by Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md.
Bartlett, who recently lost his bid for re-election, has been a major proponent of preparing the nation against the prospect of an EMP attack.
An EMP attack is "an event we will not avoid," he told National Public Radio in 2009. He also said that any remediation after the fact would cost upwards of $2 trillion.
"The more sophisticated we become, the more vulnerable we are," Bartlett said. "There's a huge concern about cyber-attacks on the grid. Well, a really robust nuclear EMP lay-down means microelectronics across the country would be shut down and you have no power…
"There's one event that we will not avoid and that is a solar electromagnetic interference – solar storm," he said. "If we have a big one like the one that occurred back in 1859, that would shut down the whole grid for quite a long while … It would cost us between $1 trillion and $2 trillion in damages, and the loss of life could be horrendous if in fact you were without electricity for months at a time."
The 1859 solar storm to which Bartlett referred also is referred to as a solar super storm, or Carrington Event. It is said to have been the most powerful solar storm in recorded history.
To a number of critics of an anti-missile defense system, however, the EMP Commission was regarded as the "cornerstone of right-wing advocacy on national defense policy," according to the leftist-leaning Institute for Policy Studies based in Washington, D.C.
In criticizing the provision, the IPS said that those advocates were "seeking to spread alarm about the purported threat of EMP attacks, which would involve the detonation of nuclear weapons in the upper atmosphere to generate a pulse that would knock out electronics-based infrastructure."
The IPS said those people "have repeatedly used the findings of this commission to advocate increased funding for costly weapons programs such as missile defense and push alarmist notions that 'rogue states' like Iran and North Korea pose an existential threat to the United States."
Bartlett first raised the alarm after he and former Congressman Curt Weldon, R-Pa., had met in 1999 with their Russian Duma, or parliament, counterparts about assaults by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization during the Kosovo crisis occurring at the time.
The two had conferred with Vladimir Lukin, who at the time was chairman of the Duma's International Affairs Committee and had been a high-level official of the then-Soviet national security apparatus under former Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev.
Lukin told the congressmen that if Moscow really wanted to hurt the United States without fear of retaliation, Russia would launch a missile from a submarine, explode it high over the country and shut down its power grid and communications for six months.
The EMP Commission made its first report to Congress in July 2004 in which it stated that a nuclear-generated EMP is "one of a small number of threats that has the potential to hold our society seriously at risk and might result in the defeat of our military forces."
Its duties were to assess the nature of a high-altitude EMP threat to the U.S. from potentially hostile states or non-state actors – terrorists – that have or could acquire nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles needed to conduct such an attack. The commission was to look at such a threat for the next 15 years.
It also was to determine the vulnerability of the U.S. military and especially the civilian infrastructure in terms of emergency preparedness. It also was to determine just how quickly the U.S. could repair and recover from damages on military and civilian systems from an EMP attack. In addition, the commission was to determine the feasibility and cost of hardening critical military and civilian systems against such an attack.
"EMP is one of a small number of threats that can hold our society at risk of catastrophic consequences," the executive report said. "EMP will cover the wide geographic region within line of sight to the nuclear weapons. It has the capability to produce a 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 executive report pointed out that the common element that can have such a devastating impact on the critical infrastructure is primarily electronics.
Just what constitutes the critical infrastructure facilities of the United States?
Section 1016 (e) of the U.S.A. Patriot Act of 2001 defines them as "Systems and assets … so vital to the United States that the incapacity or destruction of such systems and assets would have a debilitating impact on security, national economic security, national public health or safety, or any combination of those matters."
These critical infrastructure facilities include electric power, oil refineries, water treatment plants, banking systems, pipelines, transportation systems, and communications. They all depend on electrical and electronic systems to operate. Yet, they can be very vulnerable to the pulse effects of a nuclear weapon or radio-frequency weapons.
"The primary avenues for catastrophic damage to the nation are through our electric power infrastructure and thence into our telecommunications, energy and other infrastructures," the report said. "These in turn can seriously impact other important aspects of our nation's life, including the financial system; means of getting food, water, and medical care to the citizenry; trade; and production of goods and services."
The report pointed out that certain types of low-yield nuclear weapons can be used to generate "potentially catastrophic EMP effects" over a wide geographic area and "designs for variants of such weapons may have been illicitly trafficked for a quarter-century."
The concern to the commissioners in their preliminary 2004 report was that the U.S. had developed more than most other nations as a modern society heavily dependent on electronics, telecommunications, energy, information networks and financial and transportation systems that use modern technology.
"This asymmetry is a source of substantial economic, industrial, and societal advantages, but it creates vulnerabilities and critical interdependencies that are potentially disastrous to the United States," the report added.
"The current vulnerability of our critical infrastructures can both invite and reward attack if not corrected," the executive report said. "Correction is feasible and well within the nation's means and resources to accomplish."
It went on to say that an EMP attack had the capability to produce "significant damage to critical infrastructures and thus to the very fabric of U.S. society."
The preliminary report made a strong point on the interdependence of elements of the infrastructure that could show a cascading effect if subject to an EMP attack.
"All of the critical functions of U.S. society and related infrastructures – electric power, telecommunications, energy, financial, transportation, emergency services, water, food, etc – have electronic devices embedded in most aspects of their systems, often providing critical controls," the report said.
"Electric power has thus emerged as an essential service underlying U.S. society and all of its other critical infrastructures," the report said. "Telecommunications has grown to a critical level but may not rise to the same level as electrical power in terms of risk to the nation's survival."
All other infrastructures and their critical functions, the report said, are dependent on the support of electric power and telecommunications, suggesting that emphasis be placed on protecting these two high-leverage systems.
At the time, the 2004 executive report recommended that the U.S. government spend up to $200 billion over 20 years to "harden" U.S. critical infrastructure.
Among other things, it also recommended that the U.S. ensure that it had "vigorous interdiction and interception efforts to thwart delivery" – namely, an anti-ballistic missile defense system – of a nuclear weapon.
At this point, however, none of the monies has been expended to harden the nation's vulnerable electrical grid system. Nor has the Obama administration implemented a full anti-ballistic missile system, especially in the Northeast, leaving the most populated portion of the United States very vulnerable to any missile attack.