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Time for another round of cabin ruminations as I think and the sentinel (my GSD) warms her bones in the sun. The threat of an EMP has been weighing heavy on my mind these days. The USA seems to be effectively making new enemies at every turn of the news cycle.
Coupled with adversaries of old, we may be looking at a world of hurt in the not too distant future. Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea have various abilities to strike us and all have expressed hostile intents in the past. To be sure, their pace and rhetoric have both increased recently.
So let’s take a look, shall we?
EMP Threat Defined
The risk of an EMP event is not new. Ever since 1962 and Starfish Prime, we have known of the potentially catastrophic effect of a high-altitude nuclear blast, or high-altitude electromagnetic pulse (HEMP). In short, an Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) can be the result of a nuclear explosion in the upper atmosphere.
Such an explosion creates a flood of gamma rays, which in turn produce high energy free electrons. The resulting atmospheric charge couples with any conductive service down here closer to home.
Most of our small electronics are designed to work with thousandths of a watt. Consequently, if they are exposed to charges as small as tenths of a watt, they will burn out.
The larger the surface the more energy is collected and even significant systems can be overwhelmed. Our electrical grid is made up of uncountable miles of wires. These “EMP Antennas” will collect enough energy to disable power generation, transmission, and transformation (step up and step down transformers) components.
In short, most electrical components around us will be damaged beyond the point of repair. Within seconds of an EMP attack, we will be thrust into an age before electronics.
The only problem is we are not prepared for an EMP blackout. All estimates calculate that 90% of the population of the United States will die within the first year.
EMP Threat as an Asymmetric Attack
When two adversaries are unmatched the only hope for success for the less-abled party is to strike in a manner that levels the playing field.
In Vietnam and Afghanistan, this took the form of guerrilla warfare. The United States conventionally trained military was not fully prepared to attack and defend against small dispersed units.
In modern times the perfect asymmetric attack is an EMP.
An EMP will simultaneously disable and cripple the United States. Our society requires electricity to support our technology habit. We are dead without it. From communication, transportation, to feeding our 300+ million residents we simply need it.
Our enemies know this. Do not be mistaken, our enemies will take advantage of it.
EMP Threat: North Korea
In 2006 North Korea finally got a seat at the big boy’s nuclear table. To their great joy, they moved up from the kids’ table and haven’t let up since. Since their first test, they have even added long-range missiles to the mix.
Their Independence Day (ours not theirs) test in 2017 had sufficient range hit Hawaii and the West Coast. Later that month their test produced a missile that could hit Washington D.C.
There are several aspects to this that make life a little more exciting.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, Soviet Union munitions and knowledge went up for sale.
That trend didn’t necessarily end when Russia got back on her feet. Reports that span decades site Russia aiding North Korea in her efforts. From nuclear fuel plans, to weapon components, to missile engines; they gave away the store.
The Russia-Korean nuclear relationship started in the ’60s when Russia aided North Korea in the assembly of its first nuclear reactor. Within a few years, and a little clandestine help from Pakistan, North Korea was in possession of weapons-grade plutonium.
Re-enter a few out of work Russian nuclear specialists and by 2006 PRK detonated its first big-time bomb. This was followed by several missiles that were exceptionally similar to Russian missiles.
Even during the recent extreme sanctions against North Korea, Russia has played a game of cat and mouse with the world and provided rocket fuel to the North.
Kim-Jong Il has specifically stated that their development of the hydrogen bomb is for EMP use. ThisMost concerning are reports that Russia and China’s efforts to develop Super-EMP weapons has bled over to their friends at the PRK.
North Korean Missiles
With Korea’s ICBM missile technology they have the ability to hit most of the continental United States.
While the US has defenses for this the prime complication is that the optimal interception point for bringing a Korean missile down is over Russia. We are not likely to get permission to carry out this maneuver.
The good news is that we are not likely to care.
There are arguments that Korea has yet to have a complete missile test that includes re-entry. I would counter that a North Korea EMP attack does not require re-entry.
Just like flying a plane into a building doesn’t require learning how to land.
The EMP Commission, established to monitor and report to Congress on the EMP threat to the United States, issued a report titled “Foreign Views of Electromagnetic Pulse Attack” that made several references to EMP delivery with SCUD missiles.
The Korean Hwasong-9 is a variant of a SCUD with the range and payload capacity to deliver an EMP strike – so they already have a delivery vehicle. The only hurdle is to get one close enough to the US. Not a difficult problem for a country that has been successfully skirting international sanctions for a decade.
Satellite KMS 3-2
The final Korean point of interest is their satellite system.
In 2012 North Korea launched a satellite supposedly for earth observations and weather forecasting. Abbreviated KMS 3-2, the orbit of this satellite keeps it over the United States for a good portion of its life.
It’s worth noting that KMS 3-2’s altitude is 300 miles which just so happens to be the optimal altitude for an EMP to cover the entire US.
Dr. Peter Pry has expressed concerns that the satellite may not be for earth observation (note, the satellite has not sent any communications to earth since its launch) and proposes that its launch timing with Korea’s nuclear weapons program is highly suspicious.
In short, North Korea has the means, the ability, and has expressed the intent to destroy the United States with an EMP.
EMP Threat: Russia
Being a child of the 70’s & 80’s I am familiar with our cold war adversary Russia. When the Wall fell Russia didn’t simply roll over and westernize. Vladimir Putin seeks to raise Russia to her former glory and continually flexes his muscles in the process.
Russian Nuclear History
Since the 60’s Russia has kept in lockstep with the USA in her nuclear capabilities. As a result, Russia’s nuclear arsenal is second only to the US in depth, breadth, and scope.
With regards to EMP threat, the Soviet Union came to the same conclusion during the “Project K” nuclear tests as the US did during the Starfish Prime tests.
Since these first tests, both nations have sought to better understand and weaponized EMP bombs.
Russia has publicly stated that EMP use is a part of its war plan. Likewise, Russia has been said to be building, or has already built, a Super-EMP weapon. A Super-EMP is capable of generating an EMP many times more powerful than that of a traditional high altitude nuclear explosion – and in a smaller package.
Russia has also not chosen to hold her cards close to her chest.
In 1999 Europe was in the middle of the Balkan crisis where Slobodan Milosevic was trying to prevent Slovenia and Croatia from breaking away from Yugoslavia. During discussions over the Balkan crisis in Vienna, the Russian delegation directed an EMP threat to the attending members of the US Congress.
More recently in 2017, Russia publicly boasted of electronically disabling a US Aegis-class warship. In the same broadcast, they stated the ability to disable US cities and regions as well. Ultimately, this turned out to be a hoax, of course.
EMP Threat: China
As most of the children of my generation were focused on Russia during the cold war (and the years that followed) we missed out on the other state threat: China. One thing to remember is that while we think of immediate actions and responses, China generally thinks generationally. They are in it for the long game.
Chinese Nuclear History
In 1964 China detonated their first atomic bomb and followed with a hydrogen bomb shortly thereafter. They openly admit that they would have not been as successful without the help of the Soviet Union.
Current estimates state that they have about 280 nuclear warheads.
The arsenal of China includes multiples short, medium, and long-range missiles. Their longest range missiles have a range of over 8,000 miles which puts most of the continental United States within striking distance.
Their selection of deployment vehicles includes land, sea, and air including a fleet of ICBM capable submarines. In short, they have the ability to hit the US mainland with a wide variety of nuclear weapons from a diverse range of sources with little to no warning.
In 2011 the Washington Times reported on China’s pursuit of EMPs specifically for the control of Taiwan. The Times referenced report dates back to 2005 and describes the use of medium-range missiles to deliver an EMP strike over Taiwan.
In this case, China’s stated target is the US Navy with the goal of disabling any aircraft carriers or other ships that could defend Taiwan.
A low altitude EMP nuclear weapon would most likely affect Taiwan, the Philippines, and the US fleet and leave the Chinese mainland unaffected. This is a risk they would accept to disable our fleet.
Similar to Russia, reports state that China is researching, or already developing (depending on which non-mainstream media outlet you follow) a Super-EMP weapon.
A Super-EMP weapon is designed to deliver the maximum destructive EMP power in the smallest package possible. This minimizes the need for a large delivery platform.
China has openly stated the advantageous use of technological weapons against the US. The EMP Commission’s report “Foreign Views of Electromagnetic Pulse Attack” sites several instances.
The Commission’s examples include the Taiwanese plan discussed earlier, as well as the statement that due to our technology dependence the US is “more vulnerable than any other country in the world.” This solidifies the theory that a primary physical component to an information attack on the US is an EMP strike.
China has not limited its doctrine to earthbound targets. The EMP Commission’s report also references Taiwan’s Air Force Academy statement that the Chinese Communists are developing a series of weapons to attack the satellites of the US and its allies.
China will primarily accomplish this via execution of an EMP threat.
EMP Threat: Iran
Iran has been knocking at the door of the nuclear club for years. Had it not been for the Stuxnet virus that targeted and took over the Iranian SCADA systems they would probably have nukes today.
The Stuxnet virus bridged Iran’s security measures (including air-gapped systems) and drove their uranium enrichment centrifuges to the point of physical failure and destruction. It is widely speculated that this virus was a joint US-Israel virus.
Iran’s lust for nuclear weaponry dates back to the Iran/Iraq conflict of the 1980s. During this war, Iran was forced to respond to Iraq’s military superiority with sheer quantity of soldiers. They lost around 50,000 men to conventional, rocket, and chemical attacks.
Following the war, they reversed their policy on weapons of mass destruction and began to pursue them in earnest.
Iran has built one of the largest missile fleets in the Middle East. And while several of their long-range missile tests have failed – they failed after apogee. In other words, this is after the point where the missile would detonate an EMP bomb.
Additional reports state Iran has tested short-range missile launches from ships in the Caspian Sea. The interesting thing is that the launches were at maximum angle. The interpretation is that this was a test for launching a surprise attack.
You know, like from a container ship, in a shipping port.
Iranian Nuclear Resources
Finally, while not always the best of friends Russia and Iran have had consistent political and economic relations for many years. Currently, Russia is an economic partner to Iran trading mostly oil for weapons.
Reportedly Iran has sought to purchase nuclear designs from Russia, as well as EMP-centric radiofrequency weapons.
Iran is a vocal opponent of the United States and continually speaks out against us and our allies. Hence, if they ever achieve nuclear capability or the ability to project an EMP threat, there is no doubt that they will make effective use of them.
EMP World War
One of the most frightening thoughts is an all-out EMP World War. Peter Pry writes in his report of a “final worst-case scenario would be coordinated EMP attacks by Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran to advance their common global strategic and ideological interests“.
Pry goes on to state that this “New Axis comprising Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran” would like nothing better than to “overthrow the existing world order and replace it with a new world order—dominated by themselves.”
The cooperation between Pyongyang, Moscow, Beijing, and Tehran as discussed above implies these countries are allies in all but name. Would a coordinated attack against their existential enemies be so shocking? Indeed, should we prepare for this eventuality?
Potential EMP World War Sequence of Events
Pry wraps up the report with a chilling sequence of EMP attacks that could potentially cripple, or even defeat, the U.S. and its allies.
- “Iran strikes Israel… while Russia, China, and North Korea wait for U.S. forces to concentrate in the Persian Gulf… After perhaps a week, when U.S. forces and crucial C3I assets are committed and en route to the Middle East, simultaneously or in rapid succession:
- North Korea strikes South Korea and Japan
- China strikes Taiwan
- Russia strikes European NATO
- North Korea strikes the United States
- Russia strikes the United States”
When I learned the legalities of self-defense with a firearm I was taught that you could not use lethal force unless lethal force was used against you. The standard for your decision was that the threat must meet three criteria: they have the means, they have the opportunity, and they have expressed intent. Once you have identified the threat and all three criteria have been met, then, and only then, could you respond with lethal force.
It seems as though there are countries in the world that have met these criteria. Ones that will truly test the EMP defense of the United States.
So for me, it’s back to cabin duties where I need to review my EMP hardening strategies. Then I can enjoy another round of deck sitting to think about the state of the world while the pooch rests her bones. Until then, Godspeed my friends.
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Frequently Asked Questions
Why would any foe strike the US with an EMP?
An EMP is the perfect asymmetric weapon. EMP would shut out the United States from its most coveted asset: technology. Without technology, we would have no electrical grid and power distribution system as well as any means to communicate or move food, medicines, or other goods from where they are made to where they are needed.
Do China and Russia have EMP technology and weapons?
Yes, both have the ability to deliver an EMP to the US. They have both the required nuclear arsenal as well as specific weapons designed to maximize the EMP effect.
Do North Korea and Iran have EMP capable weapons?
North Korea does and Iran is seeking EMP weapons. The Russian ambassador to the US even warned that Russian scientists (seeking a better living outside of Russia) fled to North Korea with EMP knowledge.
How could a world war start?
An EMP attack by Iran on Israel would cause the United States to move the bulk of its forces to the Middle East. This would leave the US vulnerable to a mainland attack by any of Russia, China or North Korea axis powers.
- Assessing the Threat from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Executive Report
- Life Without Electricity: Storm-Induced Blackouts and Implications for EMP Attack
- Recommended E3 HEMP Heave Electric Field Waveform for the Critical Infrastructures
- Report of the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack: Volume 1 Executive Report
- Report of the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack: Critical National Infrastructures
- Risk-Based National Infrastructure Protection Priorities for EMP and Solar Storms
- Examination of NERC GMD Standards and Validation of Ground Models and Geo-Electric Fields
- Electric Reliability Standards for Solar Geomagnetic Disturbances
- Chairman’s Report of the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse Attack
- Foreign Views of Electromagnetic Pulse Attack
- Political-Military Motives for Electromagnetic Pulse Attack
- Nuclear Electromagnetic Pulse Attack Scenarios and Combined-Arms Cyber Warfare
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