Reasons To be Fearful, Part 3

The link in the previous post was taken from a comment thread in a blog-post called to our attention by reader JK. The post, from the Federation of American Scientists’ Strategic Security Blog, is an attempt to assess the import of North Korea’s recent nuclear test (if that is indeed what it was).

It is easy enough to be complacent about the extent of the threat North Korea presents. After all, they are a pipsqueak power compared to the great nations among whom their nuclear ambitions have caused such consternation; there is no doubt, one imagines, that a nuclear exchange between the DPRK and China, Russia, or the USA would be asymmetrical in the extreme, and would quickly result in North Korea’s utter obliteration. In the comment thread, however, commenter “JohnA” voices a concern that may not be uppermost in most of our minds:

This is a very serious wake-up call that should no longer be ignored. According to the EMP Commission, a Hiroshima sized nuclear-High-altitude Electro Magnetic Pulse weapon detonated at 250 miles above the mid-U.S. via a missile, could destroy the U.S.’s entire high-tech-based society’s devices and most of the high-tech continental military devices. We would return to the pre-electric agrarian society of 1752. In this case only 30 million lives could be supported by this agriculture and 270 million lives would expire from starvation and/or disease after one year. It currently takes a year or more to replace a few hundred large transformers for the world power grid-imagine if tens of thousands are destroyed in the U.S. alone. We are totally dependent on the power grid and other critical infrastructures that depend upon the power grid to sustain life and they are all currently totally unprotected against EMP. At perhaps 80 miles in altitude, a missile detonation above our East Coast from a submarine or freighter could take out perhaps 70% of the U.S. power grid and our key governmental and economic infrastructures. We need to harden the power grid immediately and then move on to hardening the other critical infrastructures.

The post’s author, Hans Kristensen, replies:

But we’ve lived under that potential threat since the Soviet Union deployed its first nuclear ballistic missile. There were even U.S. governments that believed we could “win” a nuclear war. So why is one single North Korean hypothetical (remember, they don’t have the capability to bring a nuclear warhead to detonation 250 miles above the United States) suddenly so vital that it requires hardening the power grid “harden the power grid immediately and then move on to hardening the other critical infrastructures”?

To which “JohnA” responds:

To HK on EMP Threat: The sad fact is that during the Cold War we were all potentially expendable in the U.S. during a nuclear exchange. We were advised to build our own shelters and stock our own goods for survival and to duck and cover in public places and schools. There were some community shelters with stocked goods.

HEMP E1 & E2 effects were details in a full nuclear exchange. However, we did not know about HEMP E3 effect until 1994 when a Russian scientist told us about it and its destructive effects in a conference. We did not know because we tested over water in 1962 and the Soviets tested over land and suffered consequences to their electrical grids and devices. This is likely why they signed the above-ground Test Ban Treaty-because we did not know about E3 and they did.

In the Soviet Union, both the strategic weapons and critical infrastructures were protected against HEMP. Also, nuclear shelters existed in all major cities for the elites as is also the case in China-including the brand new one in Shanghai.

We did not know the Soviets/Russians had a super HEMP weapon until 2004 when Russian generals hired by the EMP Commission told us of its existance. It delivers 200,000 volts/meter at the center of the detonation line-of-sight. We protected our strategic weapons and facilities to 50,000 volts/meter during the Cold War and up to today. Therefore, we are totally unprotected. A HEMP weapon is the perfect asymmetric weapon for a rogue state/terror group to destroy the U.S. Also, we would never know who did it. The Russian’s said this in 1999 when the head of the Russian Duma threatened us with such a HEMP attack over the Kosovo negotiations. Both Iran and North Korea have tested HEMP trajectories-Iran from submarines and NK over Japan. Next question?

The moderator replies:

Only this: it would be interesting to see the references for all of that.

Indeed it would. Meanwhile, the thread also includes this impressively concise summary of the diplomatic situation, from commenter “3.1415”:

The Dear Leader is enjoying his spotlight. He will get the bomb to work sooner or later at this rate. There is really no military solution to this problem. And the diplomatic solution will not work either, because everyone of the 6 parties has different agenda. China does not want NK to fail and let the Americans go beyond 38th parallel, neither does Russia. Japan and SK might want to go nuclear, but the Americans won’t let them. Any concession from the US would weaken Obama’s position and will not change the Dear Leader’s determination to be a nuclear state, declared or otherwise. The Korean War never really stopped; an armstice was called. Maybe it is time for China and US to go back to the negotiation table to finish the business. Not very pleasant, but what is the alternative? The six party talk has four parties too many.

Thanks for the link, JK. Readers can find the whole thing here.


  1. Kevin Kim says

    I memorized pi this far: 3.141592653. By this reckoning, that commenter should have called himself “3.1416.” Assuming he was rounding.

    On a serious note: I think you’ve brought up the topic of EMP effects on the US power grid before, and I agree that this is a worrisome prospect. Wouldn’t it be nice if we invented some way to beam instructions directly into the guidance systems of enemy missiles that would (1) erase the missiles’ original flight plans and (2) replace them with flight plans that returned the missiles rather violently to their points of origin? Such tech might work only once or twice before the enemy caught on and developed countermeasures, but it’d be pretty cool while it worked, and it wouldn’t be the US that would have to worry about EMP problems.


    Posted May 31, 2009 at 1:17 am | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Hi Kevin,

    Very Eastern. I like it.

    Posted May 31, 2009 at 1:34 am | Permalink
  3. JK says

    Hey Kevin,

    It’s Eastern, and if one were walking – far away. (Recall foot sores and wet tents? But that was a “doable.”)

    As I understand it (which is not the same as saying I understand it) a “focused EM beam” – akin to a laser – is exponentially more difficult than say well, a laser for instance. Let’s leave aside photons (light) and for the present discussion RADAR, LIDAR and what-not. Note – I stand to be corrected as soon as I click “submit.”

    I don’t think I’m gonna get into any trouble here (mainly because I’m an idiot) but a focused and linear EMP Beam – akin to say the laser pointer that Malcolm uses when he presents his PowerPoint presentations to his 5000+ underling staff is not something Malcolm will be able to pick up at Office Depot.

    “Pulsed EM beams” were considered wwaaayyy back when Ronnie Reagan was proposing “Star Wars” (not the prequel movie – the missile defense thingy) anyway, the technology didn’t exist then. And so far as we in the US know now – simply because the former USSR revealed it in 1999, only an EMP was capable of frying curcuit boards at distance. If I remember correctly, the former USSR called their weapon the HEMP. Kinda ironic.

    But even then, a focused, linear beamed EMP was deemed impossible.

    Something to do with quantum mechanics.

    But then what do I know, I can’t get the Chevy dealer to figure out what’s wrong with my ignition system.

    I’d only suggest Kevin, seek published test data…. uh … from independent sources.

    Posted May 31, 2009 at 5:50 am | Permalink
  4. Personally, I think an EMP attack on America is highly likely. It doesn’t require particularly sophisticated equiment and just a few bombs could take out the entire grid and effectively cripple our entire nation. This is a HUGE reason to keep a food storage — to survive.

    Posted June 11, 2009 at 7:30 pm | Permalink
  5. Malcolm says

    Thanks, PP, and welcome.

    I will confess that I take this particular threat more seriously now; I hadn’t realized quite how grave the risk was.

    Posted June 11, 2009 at 8:04 pm | Permalink
  6. JOHNA says

    I’m JOHNA any questions? This is real and very serious. We are sitting ducks in a dangerous pond watching the hunters’ load their weapons-there are many hunters who could fire at us. It only takes one and we will not likely know who fired.
    I did come across a Russian military blog where they claimed their interceptor jet could knock out our F-22s with EMP. Perhaps it is a missile with a non-nuclear EMP pulse generator that detonates close to the incoming flight of F-22s before they fire their missiles. The Russian traditionally controlled their a/c from the ground. If our flight is detected they tell them to fire their missiles; this also implies possible ground-to-air EMP missiles. The Russians have hypersonic missiles. They also have torpedoes that travel at 300MPH when they work properly. In the Kursk incident it did not. Never, never underestimate our enemies’ technology. Nazi Germany had a twin-jet, swept-wing, very high-altitude, near speed-of sound, stealth bomber named the Horton (Brothers) “New York Bomber.” It was designed to carry their atom bomb when ready in 1946. The “Skunk Works” reconstructed the rusting bomber that is in a Maryland hanger for stealth testing. Our B-2 designers visited that Maryland facility in the late 1970s.

    Posted September 6, 2009 at 5:11 pm | Permalink
  7. Malcolm says

    Hi John, and thanks for visiting.

    Posted September 7, 2009 at 11:31 am | Permalink

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