Electromagnetic pulse attacks are one of the most alarming threats facing the western world.
There are two reasons for that:
#1. The damage the attack would actually do, would be extreme. Look around you at all the things you use every day. How many of them contain electronics? An EMP attack would destroy them all – and it would also destroy most of the infrastructure you rely on. Utilities, traffic signals, the railways and much more would all be wrecked by electromagnetic pulse. So, using such a weapon against the aging and overly-taxed United States power grid could quickly wreak havoc and ultimately cause millions of deaths in America.
#2. The second reason is that, politically, they’re a weapon that’s very easy to use for blackmail. After all, an EMP attack on the USA wouldn’t directly kill anyone. As the famous Don Cheadle noted in the ever-relevant Ocean’s 11, this new weapon “is a bomb — but without the bomb”.
So, sure, thousands of people would die as transportation, medical and water purification systems failed, but nobody would be killed by the actual weapon. Would the USA be able, politically, to retaliate with a nuclear strike when the enemy had “only” detonated a weapon in space, a couple of hundred miles above the country? After all, the explosion wouldn’t even be in US airspace – that ends at an altitude of 50 miles. Would Congress agree to incinerate North Korean cities in reply to a “soft” attack like an EMP? In a sane world they would, because a big EMP would do more damage to the USA than actually nuking a single decent-sized city would, but the indirect nature of an EMP attack makes it a gray area.
Unfortunately the risk of an EMP attack by a rogue state, especially North Korea, is increasing fast. In fact Pyongyang announced in September that they’ve developed a weapon that’s suitable for using as a high-altitude EMP, and they’ve made enough technological progress recently that this claim has to be taken seriously.
Now, experts reporting to the House Committee on Homeland Security are urging the federal government to develop its own EMP capability as a deterrent. If the USA could reply in kind to an EMP attack, instead of having to escalate to nuclear strikes on actual ground targets, a potential attacker will know that a counterstrike is almost inevitable.
What’s caused this is the realization that, when it comes to North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, most people have been seriously underestimating the threat. The Pentagon now think the Stalinist regime already has around 60 nuclear warheads, and can reach the USA with them. So far, North Korea doesn’t have a missile capable of reaching the contiguous states, and even if they developed one it wouldn’t have the accuracy to hit even a large target like a city. The problem is, if they opted for an EMP attack, that doesn’t matter.
To devastate a huge chunk of the USA with an EMP, all the North Koreans have to do is get a warhead to detonate somewhere in a target area hundreds of miles across. That doesn’t need much in the way of technology to achieve. Building a rocket capable of carrying the warhead is a brute-force problem; it’s just a matter of packing enough fuel into a big enough steel tube, and there’s no need for sophisticated guidance systems. As long as the rocket can be relied on to go in the right direction, a clockwork timer is literally good enough.
Even worse, they wouldn’t necessarily even need a big rocket. A nuclear-armed satellite could be launched into low Earth orbit, then commanded to detonate as it passed over the USA. Alternatively, weapons could be suspended from balloons and released so high-altitude winds would carry them across North America. Warheads could even be launched by SCUD-type missiles from commercial ships off the US coast, to explode at high altitude several hundred miles inland. There are lots of options; what matters is that, however the attack was launched, it would be devastating.
It wouldn’t be hard for the USA to develop its own EMP capability, allowing any country that attacked in this way to get a rapid dose of its own medicine. In fact, a software edit would probably allow current strategic weapons – Trident II sub-launched missiles or Minuteman-III ICBMs – to detonate a warhead at high altitude. Modifying warheads to create a much greater EMP effect wouldn’t be much harder; the USA already knows how to do that. It’s most likely that modified weapons would be launched by Trident, which can carry up to twelve warheads – that would allow an attacker to be blanketed with relatively small weapons, each devastating electronics and power cables over a radius of hundreds of miles.
If the Pentagon decides to build this capability the chances of a hostile nation launching an EMP attack at the USA go way down; it might be politically risky for a president to nuke another country in response to a “non-lethal” attack on infrastructure, but nobody can complain if the USA retaliates like for like.
The problem is, it might take years for even the simplest weapons program to work its way through the Washington bureaucracy, so even if a decision was made tomorrow there isn’t much chance of the capability existing before about 2023 at the earliest – and a deterrent doesn’t work until the weapons actually exist. But it might come to life sooner than everyone expects. Keep reading…
If the North Koreans know that the USA can’t retaliate with EMP weapons now, but will be able to in a few years, they might just be tempted to get their attack in before America can reply to it. That’s quite a low risk strategy; if they launch a successful EMP it’s going to delay the US program by years, or maybe kill it off altogether – it depends how much damage their attack does. This isn’t a reason to not build an American EMP weapon; the risk exists already, and the USA has to be able to deter it. What it does mean is that there’s a trade-off; the USA has to accept a higher risk of EMP attack for a few years, in exchange for it dropping sharply once the country is able to reply in kind.
What the US government has to do is identify the simplest way to build an EMP capability – even if it’s not perfect – and get it into service as fast as possible. Then a better one can be developed, if necessary. What we have to do is take another look at the precautions we’ve taken against EMP and make sure they’re up to the job – because the risk of an attack looks like it’s quite a bit higher than it seemed to be just a few months ago.
But given the last few years’ international and national rise of turmoils, the US together with the private company Boeing, had decided to “bring to life” such an weapon that would make an EMP attack actually a preventable homeland security catastrophe. So, after years of discussions and failed experiments, Boeing has announced that it successfully tested an electromagnetic pulse missile capable of disabling electronics without affecting structures. The Counter-electronics High-powered Advanced Missile Project (CHAMP) was tested by a Boeing Phantom Works/U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory Directed Energy Directorate team on October 16 at the Utah Test and Training Range. This American military project is an attempt to develop a device with all the power of a nuclear weapon but without the death and destruction to people and infrastructure that such a weapon causes. Theoretically, the new missile system would pinpoint buildings and knock out their electrical grids, plunging the target into darkness and general disconnectedness.
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