WASHINGTON – America's critical national infrastructures all are linked together – and to the power grid – and that opens the door for a variety of different scenarios in which an electromagnetic pulse event would create a catastrophe, analysts have warned.
The danger was recognized years ago already, when the 2008 report of the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse Attack said the threat from "highly interlocked critical infrastructures may be greater than the sum of the vulnerability of its parts."
In presenting what was the EMP commission's final report to Congress in July 2008, William R. Graham, chairman of the commission, told the House Armed Services Committee that the risk of an EMP attack may be greater today than it was at the height of the Cold War.
Advertisement - story continues below
He pointed out that not only can relatively low-yield nuclear weapons be used to create potentially catastrophic EMP effects over wide geographic areas, but the number of countries developing or already possessing such a capability is increasing.
He was referring to the fact that there has been an increased number of "adversaries" who are seeking nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles and "asymmetric," or unconventional, ways of overcoming U.S. conventional superiority using one or a small number of nuclear weapons.
In this context, he was implying Iran and North Korea.
But a nuclear exchange involving any of the nations such as India, Israel and Pakistan whose leaders have nuclear weaponry also would have serious electromagnetic pulse effects on the United States, its assets abroad and its allies.
Advertisement - story continues below
Even more alarming, any number of regional terror organizations might acquire the weaponry to create such a catastrophe.
And there are multiple open doors for such problems, not just willful nuclear aggression, such as the natural results of electromagnetic solar storms that scientists from National Aerospace and Space Administration and the National Academy of Sciences expect during the 2012-2014 time frame.
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.
These scientists say that their models are showing an intensity that could at least equal magnetic solar storms of 1859 and 1958. Indeed, the sun already is showing signs of emerging from what is referred to as a solar minimum in which the solar flares on the surface of the sun are predominantly dormant. The flares have recently begun to show increased activity, a cycle that occurs every 11 years.
Graham's focus, however, was on the effects of an electromagnetic pulse from a nuclear explosion.
Advertisement - story continues below
Third World countries with existing nuclear weapons or those developing such a capability have been testing conventional weapons by exploding them in midflight to approximate the effects of an electromagnetic pulse. Such testing has been going on for years. Even the Russians and Chinese continue to talk about having such a capability and using it against the United States as a way to overwhelm its strategic weapons superiority.
Graham said that the electromagnetic fields produced by weapons deployed with the intent of producing an electromagnetic pulse have a high likelihood of damaging U.S. electrical power systems, electronics and information systems upon which the American society depends.
"Their effects on critical infrastructures could be sufficient to qualify as catastrophic to the nation," Graham told the committee.
Advertisement - story continues below
He pointed out that just one or a few high-altitude nuclear detonations could produce electromagnetic pulse effects that would potentially disrupt or damage electronic systems over much of the United States, virtually simultaneously, at a time determined by an adversary.
"EMP is one of a small number of threats that can hold our society at risk of catastrophic consequences," Graham said.
He pointed out that an electromagnetic pulse will cover a wide geographic area within line of sight to the nuclear weapon and produce significant damage to critical infrastructures that support "the fabric of U.S. society and the ability of the United States and Western nations to project influence and military power."
Left unsaid in his testimony is that the "adversaries" know this vulnerability all too well, given the extent of reliance of the U.S. on infrastructures that have electronics and electrical power as their base.
In effect, an electromagnetic pulse attack becomes a weapon in the hands of a David against a Goliath.
"Our vulnerability is increasing daily as our use of and dependence on electronics continues to grow in both our civil and military sectors," Graham said. "The impact of EMP is asymmetric in relation to the potential antagonists who are not as dependent on advanced electronic technologies" as the U.S. is.
In this connection, a Third World adversary would have the capability of attacking the U.S. with a high-altitude nuclear weapon-generated electromagnetic pulse without having a high level of sophistication.
Graham said the adversary would not need a long-range ballistic missile to undertake an electromagnetic attack against the United States, since it could be launched from a freighter off the U.S. coast using a short-or medium-range missile. The nuclear warhead would be sent to a high altitude where it would explode, creating the electromagnetic pulse.
And it would not necessarily have to be a country which would or could launch such a missile off of America's shores. It also could be a terrorist proxy that would undertake an attack without revealing the identity of the perpetrators.
While Graham was referring at the time of his testimony to Iran, a few other countries have similar existing nuclear capabilities and could use terrorist proxies to launch conventional attacks on the U.S. that would include exploding a high-altitude nuclear device using just a short-range ballistic missile.
Those two countries would be North Korea and Pakistan. Ironically, Iran as yet doesn't have a nuclear weapon it could put on a missile and launch.
Pakistan in particular has created a number of what the U.S. would regard as terrorist groups to act as its proxy against India.
At least one, the Pakistani Taliban, also known as the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP, attempted in May 2010 to explode a car bomb in New York's Time Square. While the attempt was unsuccessful, evidence has shown that it was the TTP that trained the bomber, Faisal Shahzad.
Based on a compilation by the South Asia Intelligence Review, which provides weekly assessments and briefings on terrorism in the region, there are some 12 domestic and some 32 transnational terrorist and four extremist organizations in Pakistan. They are:
- Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)
- Lashkar-e-Omar (LeO)
- Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP)
- Tehreek-e-Jaferia Pakistan (TJP)
- Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM)
- Lashkar-eJhangvi (LeJ)
- Sipah-e-Muhammad Pakistan (SMP)
- Nadeem Commando
- Popular Front for Armed Resistance
- Muslim United Army
- Harkat-ul-Mujahideen Al-alami(HuMA)
- Hizb-ul-Mujahideen (HM)
- Harkat-ul-Ansar (HuA, presently known as Harkat-ul Mujahideen)
- Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT)
- Jaish-e-Mohammad Mujahideen E-Tanzeem (JeM)
- Harkat-ul Mujahideen (HuM, previously known as Harkat-ul-Ansar)
- Al Badr
- Jamait-ul-Mujahideen (JuM)
- Lashkar-e-Jabbar (LeJ)
- Muttahida Jehad Council (MJC)
- Al Barq
- Al Jehad
- Jammu & Kashir National Liberation Army
- People's League
- Muslim Janbaz Force
- Kashmir Jehad Force
- Al Jehad Force (combines Muslim Janbaz Force and Kashmir Jehad Force)
- Al Umar Mujahideen
- Islami Jamaat-e-Tulba
- Jammu & Kashmir Students Liberation Front
- Islamic Students League
- Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Fiqar Jafaria
- Al Mustafa Liberation Fighters
- Muslim Mujahideen
- Al Mujahid Force
- Islami Inquilabi Mahaz
- Al-Rashid Trust
- Al-Akhtar Trust
- Rabita Trust
- Ummah Tamir-e-Nau
As the South Asia Intelligence Review pointed out, many of these terrorist organizations continue to operate with a high degree of freedom in and from Pakistan.
Given the increasingly rocky relationship between Pakistan and the U.S. however, Pakistani terrorist groups could act as a proxy for the Pakistani government to launch a similar attack.
As it now stands, Pakistan is also close to Iran, and with the spotlight on Iran, either Pakistan or North Korea could either use terrorist entities of its own creation, in the case of Pakistan, or hire out proxies.
A 2007 report by the U.S. Congressional Research Service, or CRS, has said that North Korea may have given arms to Lebanon's Hezbollah and Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers, which Washington regards as terrorist groups.
Given the on-again, off-again discussions to get North Korea to dismantle its nuclear program, Washington refused to remove Pyongyang from the terrorist list unless it agreed to allow inspectors into its nuclear sites. In October 2008, the Bush administration removed North Korea from the terrorist list.
Despite the removal from the list, North Korea could re-establish a relationship with terrorist groups if it suited its purposes. In fact, the removal now gives Pyongyang plausible deniability should it decide to enlist the help of proxies to carry out an electromagnetic pulse attack using a nuclear weapon mounted on one of its missiles.
Adding concern to all this is the launch by North Korea in recent weeks of a multi-stage ballistic missile that experts say could reach the western portion of the United States.
Critics might say that these countries with a nuclear weapon or with plans to develop one don’t have the capability of mounting a miniaturized nuclear warhead on a missile and shoot it.
However, that may not necessarily be the case.
In his testimony before the July 10, 2008, House Armed Services Committee, Graham revealed that United Nations investigators had found the design for a miniaturized advanced nuclear weapon that would fit on ballistic missiles "currently in the inventory of Iran, North Korea and other potentially hostile states" in the possession of Swiss businessmen.
The U.N. said that the Swiss businessmen were affiliated with the Pakistani nuclear scientist, Abdul Qadeer Khan, more commonly known as A.Q. Khan, and his nuclear smuggling network. The Swiss businessmen were identified as members of the Tinner family. They were brothers Marco and Urs, and their father, Friedrich.
Just a month prior to Graham's testimony, a U.N. report had revealed that the Khan international smuggling ring that had sold nuclear bomb-related parts to Iran, Libya and North Korea also had acquired blueprints to miniaturize an advanced nuclear weapon. The U.N. report suggested that the plans also were secretly shared with a number of countries and possibly with unidentified rogue groups.
In investigating the smuggling of A.Q. Khan's operations, the U.N. uncovered computer contents said to include more than 1,000 gigabytes of seized data that Swiss police had found on computers of Swiss businessmen in 2006. Although unconfirmed, U.S. intelligence had directed Swiss authorities to the Tinner family members.
The drawings found on their heavily encrypted computers provided details for building a compact nuclear device that could be fitted on the type of ballistic missiles used by Iran and what the report said were more than a dozen other developing countries.
The U.N. report was authored by David Albright, who is a prominent nuclear weapons expert with the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security and very knowledgeable of the A.Q. Khan network.
"These advanced nuclear weapons designs may have long ago been sold off to some of the most treacherous regimes in the world," Albright’s U.N. report said. "To many of these countries, it's all about size and weight," Albright said, adding that the countries need to be able to fit the nuclear device on the missiles in their possession.
"These would have [been] ideal for two of Khan's other major customers, Iran and North Korea," Albright said. "They both faced struggles in building a nuclear warhead small enough to fit atop their ballistic missiles, and these designs were for a warhead that would fit."
At the time, Albright said that he could not be certain that the design for miniaturizing a nuclear weapon to fit on the ballistic missiles of Iran and North Korea actually had been delivered.
However, the tenor of testimony by Graham of the EMP commission – who had access to the nation's highest level of security clearances to prepare the commission report – strongly suggested that Iran and North Korea may have acquired those plans from Khan's smuggling network.
"This fact suggests that other advanced nuclear weapon designs may already be in the possession of hostile states and of states that sponsor terrorism," Graham said. "This fact also suggests that it would be a mistake to judge the status and sophistication of rogue nuclear weapon programs, based solely on their indigenous national capabilities, since outside assistance may well have been provided."