By Amb. Henry F. Cooper
Tuesday, October 22nd, 2013 @ 3:31PM
What will it take to get the powers that be to initiate timely and effective countermeasures to the existential threat posed by an electromagnetic pulse (EMP), from either manmade or natural causes? Whether it will lead to effective actions is uncertain, but understanding a number of misconceptions about the threat is very important to those who seek to develop a strategy to counter events that could lead to the death of an overwhelming majority of all Americans.
High Frontier seeks to inform all who will listen that America’s leaders seem oblivious to an existential threat from many who wish to destroy us-namely any with nuclear-armed ballistic missiles who detonates even a single such weapon at high altitude (say a hundred miles) over the United States.
The resulting effects from that detonation would kill no one immediately, but its electromagnetic pulse (EMP) would likely shut down for an indefinite period the electric power grid, which literally sustains our way of life. The loss of our “just in time” delivery systems for food, water, medicine, transportation, banking, communications, etc. would return us to an 18th century existence without the benefits of an agrarian society that then assured our survival.
Our email messages since last Fall (See our webpagewww.highfrontier.org to review these messages.) have emphasized that America’s life blood-electricity-flows through the electric power grid, illustrated in the title slide from a briefing by Dr. George H. Baker, an EMP expert and professional colleague. I’ll return to a discussion of this important briefing after a few more introductory comments.
Status Quo: Protect Nukes But Leave People Vulnerable?
If we lose the electric power grid, several hundred million Americans could perish within a year . . . but the powers that be seem oblivious to this reality.
Presumably, they are uninformed. Or maybe they believe the threat is exaggerated by a bunch of conspiracy minded nuts, who also might be concerned about Orson Wells’ fictional attack by aliens from outer space.
But our Cold War experience confirms that the EMP threat is real and that we know how to protect against it. This knowledge was highly classified following our introduction to the consequences of EMP in 1962, when the Starfish Prime high altitude nuclear test damaged electrical systems in Hawaii, some 900 miles away. Furthermore, we have long known that today’s solid state electronics are much more vulnerable than were Hawaii’s vacuum tube electronics exposed to Starfish Prime.
We also have long known how to harden out critical electrical systems to survive such effects. We developed, deployed and maintained hardening techniques to assure our strategic systems could survive and be employed by the President to retaliate to a Soviet first strike employing EMP. That we were correct in assuming this precursor attack was a key part of their war plan was confirmed by information we obtained from Russians after the Cold War.
Furthermore, the Cold War technologies have since been markedly improved-in designing both systems to use EMP offensively and countermeasures to survive if attacked with these improved EMP weapons.
In 2008, the congressionally charted EMP Commission successfully sought and got official approval to declassify much on these matters, and their report became public knowledge. Click here to review their 2004 and 2008 reports-as well as testimony by the commission’s chairman, Dr. William R. Graham, who in his last government post served as President Reagan’s Science Advisor.
I served with Bill at the Air Force Weapons Laboratory in the 1960s when we both focused on understanding nuclear weapons effects and protecting our strategic systems against those effects. Bill participated on Starfish Prime and quickly acquired a national reputation on EMP. He served as a senior national level advisor on how to harden our strategic systems and their supporting command, control and communications systems to assure that the President could retaliate with our nuclear forces if we were attacked by the Soviet Union.
So-during the Cold War, we hardened our nuclear capable forces. As a Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force, I was privileged to oversee many of these important programs in the late 1970s and early 1980s-and personally know that assuring their survivability is feasible. Hopefully, the powers that be still maintain the survivability of our strategic systems in today’s uncertain world.
But I also know from that first-hand experience that we did essentially nothing to harden our civil critical infrastructure-that in turn depends on the survival of the electric power grid. Rectifying this condition is an urgent requirement in today’s world-one which Bill and I both continue to seek to rectify.
Bill and I have have continued as professional colleagues-and, in particular, we both recently joined the Board of Directors of the Foundation for Resilient Societies. This non-profit foundation is currently focused on protecting the U.S. electric grid against the long-term loss of commercial electric power that could be caused by a manmade (nuclear attack) or natural (major solar storm) EMP event. Supporting this foundation is an important complement to High Frontier’s efforts to defend against ballistic missiles that could create devastating EMP effects.
Overcoming Persistent EMP Misconceptions.
So, we know the threat is real and we know how to deal with it-from a technical perspective; and, I might add, also from an economic perspective. To do so requires getting the powers that be to act, which implies that they should understand a number of misperceptions.
The above title chart is from a briefing by another friend and director of the Foundation of Resilient Societies, Dr. George H. Baker. During his government career, he directed the Department of Defense EMP programs. He also served on the Principal Staff of the EMP Commission and remains actively involved in our efforts to inform all who will listen about the EMP threat, about which there are many misconceptions. In particular, I urge you to spend 20 minutes or so by clicking here to view his lecture on this important subject. To help you see his charts, click here for better fidelity.
George discussed the following misconceptions, with enough authoritative detail to hold the attention of technologists and hopefully not to go over the head of lay persons. He notes misconceptions that overstate and understate the intensity and extent of the EMP threat.COMMON EMP MISCONCEPTIONS
(From a briefing by Dr. George H. Baker)
EMP will burn out every exposed electronic system
EMP effects will be very limited and only result in “nuisance” effects in critical infrastructure systems
EMP will cause “upset” effects-not permanent damage
These upset effects are not serious with easy recovery
Long haul fiber optic lines are not vulnerable to EMP
To protect our critical national infrastructure would cost a large fraction of the GNP
Megaton class weapons are needed to cause any serious EMP effects. Low-level “entry-level” weapons are not a concern
Only late-time EMP (E3), not E1 will damage electric power grid transformers
Ground burst EMP effects are limited to 2-5 kms from a nuclear explosion where blast, thermal and radiation effects dominate
Misconceptions that overstate the problem may discourage folks from trying to deal with the looming danger-they could lead to what some have called the “On the Beach” syndrome-a reference to the 1959 movie of that title. (If you wish to see this film, click here for the first hour and here for the second hour.) This film exaggerated radiation fallout conditions following a nuclear exchange, leading to the death everyone on earth, leading some viewers to suggest that “the living would envy the dead”-and to cancel the then existing civil defense program as America drifted into a mutual suicide pact with the Soviet Union called Mutual Assured Destruction, or appropriately MAD for short. This policy presumed that the world would be safe if either side would destroy the other if it were first attacked.
It was this view that led to the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty which made it illegal to seek to defend Americans at home against ballistic missile attack. It took President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), which I was privileged to lead as its third director, to challenge that view and President George W. Bush’s determination to withdraw from that treaty after 30 years under its ill-advised and restrictive terms, the legacy of which regrettably still lives. Story for another day.
The second and third misconceptions, both of which understate the problem, are important because they lead the powers that be to do nothing, never mind the downside risks if they are proven to be wrong. Taking this risk is ludicrous in view of George’s fourth misconception, namely that rectifying the vulnerability of the electric power grid is expensive. George notes in his briefing that hardening the grid would cost electric power subscribers pennies a month. Pretty cheap insurance, it seems to me-and to those with whom I have discussed this issue.
Regarding the fifth misconception, advanced nuclear weapons designs have gone far beyond the designs employed in our atmospheric nuclear tests which ended a half century ago; and we know that very low yield nuclear weapons can produce debilitating EMP effects over large areas-essentially all territory within a line of sight from a high-altitude detonation. Some believe that even North Korea has tested these designs, transferred to them from Russia and China. If so, Iran is not far behind.
Furthermore, even non-nuclear weapons have been invented that produce EMP effects over limited ranges-and could be used in a coordinated terrorist attack scenario to shut down portions of the grid. For example, click here to see a Boeing press release on their unpiloted aircraft version of such a weapon system.
As a prelude to discussing the sixth misconception, understand that E1 and E3 are, respectively, short wavelength and long wavelength components of a nuclear produced EMP. From extensive simulation testing, we know E1 causes damage to the solid state electronics that are essential to many components of our critical civil infrastructure, including the electric power grid. E3 is a primary threat to the electric power grid because the long wavelength component couples into the long lines that interconnect the power plants of the grid. The power lines channel lethal charges to destroy the key large transformers that are no longer produced (by hand, so their construction take months) in the United States and without which the grid will collapse. Notably, E3 would also be produced by a massive solar flare. E1 would not. (The E2 component, by the way, has a mid-range wavelength like lightning and is handled by well-known countermeasures, such as surge arrestors.)
George’s seventh misperception refers to the fact that a nuclear explosion on the surface of the earth-perhaps to attack very hard structures with blast effects- also produces an EMP that can couple to the power grid network illustrated in his title slide
Bottom line: The above misconceptions, if understood by the American people, will help them to demand that their representatives provide for the common defense.
Article originally available here.