Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Earlier today I went to a meeting (organised by the Henry Jackson Society) in one of the more remote Commons Committee Rooms chaired by James Arbuthnot MP, the Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence.  He began by intoning that we were all attending “the most important meeting you will ever go to”.  I am not sure about that, but it was undoubtedly one of the scariest I have ever attended.

It was addressed by Avi Schnurr, President of EMPACT (The EMP Awareness Coordination Taskforce) and concerned the threat of an electro-magnetic pulse that could permanently disable the electricity grid and most electrical systems.

In 1962, the United States conducted “Starfish Prime,” a nuclear weapon test over a remote region of the Pacific Ocean. The test was successful, with one unexpected result: fifteen hundred kilometers away in Hawaii streetlights burned out, TV sets and radios failed and power lines fused. This was unexpected and demonstrated that a nuclear warhead set off above the atmosphere causes an Electromagnetic Pulse, or EMP. Unlike a ground burst, an EMP blast can mean (depending on how high in the atmosphere the explosion takes place) continent-wide catastrophe, a capability potentially in the hands of any rogue nation or terror organization that can acquire a single nuclear-tipped missile.

With some of the world’s most unstable regional powers acquiring or already in possession of nuclear weapons, the United States Congress established the Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Commission, tasked with evaluating this growing threat. The Commission, based on testimony from throughout the federal government, warned that America’s current vulnerability invites attack. They concluded, remarkably, that “EMP is capable of causing catastrophe for the nation,” as “one of a small number of threats that has the potential to hold our society seriously at risk, and might result in defeat of our military forces.”

During the Cold War, the USA and the USSR relied on deterrence, but because of the threat from EMP (which could have limited their capacity to respond after a first warhead had detonated) both would have responded to a single missile in flight by a full maximum response within minutes – hence the briefcase with the codes that still follows the US President.

However, if one postulates a rogue state or a rogue group having access to a quite small nuclear device and a rocket powerful enough to send it into the upper atmosphere above the target nation or nations (perhaps launched from a boat), deterrence is no longer the answer.  The attraction for a North Korea or an Iran (and in both countries there is evidence according to Avi Schnurr that the military elites are not only aware of the potential of EMP attack but have also actively discussed it) is the comparative simplicity of delivering such an attack that would disable the United States or Europe and that it could be done stealthily.  The same attraction would also be there for terrorist groups.

And there is no question that the effect of an EMP attack could be devastating.  Electricity grids would be destroyed as transformers burnt out (and although these could be replaced the process would take years and again according to Avi Schnurr there is only one company in the world that makes the transformers on which the US electricity grid relies).  Control systems for parts of the critical infrastructure (eg the water supply) and even for vehicles would be destroyed by an EMP attack.  For a significant period the infrastructure could not function, distribution systems (eg for food) would not function, and the internet would not work.  Given the nature of modern society, social structures would break down very rapidly.

And as if the threat from a rogue state or terrorists was not enough, electromagnetic pulses can occur naturally as part of solar activity. Avi Schnurr quoted the US National Academy of Sciences as warning that solar activity can produce effects of equivalent magnitude and does so approximately every hundred years or so.  The last such massive solar surge was in 1859 and shorted out telegraph wires and caused widespread fires.  The next occasion when there might be such a surge is 2012 (although it might not be the big one, but that is when the next peak of solar activity is anticipated).

I will have to check but I don’t remember any of this being mentioned in last month’s National Security Strategy.  I can feel some Parliamentary Questions coming on …

11 thoughts on “Be afraid. Be very afraid.”

  1. I attended a similarly scary seminar on this topic way back in the late 1970s. That one was commissioned by a company trying to sell specially shielded cables to utilities.

    Although there is undoubtedly a risk I would rank it on a par with that from the “millennium bug” (not that I’m complaining – I made thousands of pounds out of that nice little earner after someone had warned me in about 1996 to keep quiet about my view that there was no real issue for most IT-based systems).

    I hate to seem cynical (because cynicism is such an easy but destructive thing) but I think a lot of such scares are stoked up by purveyors of “solutions”.

    But, especially having been without tap water and at risk of no electricity for two weeks after the great flood of 2007, I hope there is some “fit for purpose” robust contingency planning for infrastructure failure…

  2. My default position is “cynical” and the next statement from many “experts” on such matters is to offer their company’s “solution”. We didn’t get to that stage with Avi Schnurr and in any event I have heard sotto voce comment about this particular threat before.

    My main concern remains that in the UK at least the protection of our critical national infrastructure is inadequate against a whole number of different potential problems.

  3. Of all the possible terrorist attacks, I think an EMP is the most likely. Chaos would ensue. It is important for people on an individual basis to do what they can to store food and water for their family so they can adequately prepare for their own needs. If the electricity is out long term, the shelves at the grocery store will be depleted quickly.

  4. I would be more inclined to believe this horror story if the evidence wasn”t presented by the head of the Israeli missile defense association, I would think that makes the whole presentation highly biased….

  5. I fear you have been the victim of a lobby group. Your terrorists are going to need a very big boat.

    The truth is, that an in-atmosphere EMP has very limited range, and a ”small nuclear device” would be alomst wholely ineffective – about 10 miles range, if you were lucky enough to actually trigger an EMP event, with succh an approach.

    A continent-busting EMP would need a payload lifted to altitudes higher than the orbit of the International Space Station. In all likelihood, it would require an extremely large payload, too: atom bombs are heavy. So, you”re probably looking at a launch vehicle with capabilities similar to a Saturn V.

    Furthermore, the EMP doesn”t do the damage; the ionisation of the atmosphere does, and achieving this ionisation in the correct way is not easy. It is much more likely that your energy will be disipated by the very medium you are trying to ionise. Magnetic conditions pertaining within the atmosphere over your target at the time, are as much a feature of how successful an EMP burst is, as the actual weapon used. The Starfish Prime result was a fluke (in an age when atomic weapons were being detonated on an almost weekly basis) precisely because EMP effects are not easy to achieve.

  6. No. Do not be afraid. Do not be very afraid. Be cynical. Be very cynical.

    The EMP panic is an unfounded scare, a myth along the lines of the Red Mercury hoax, and it is being deliberately encouraged by people who want to get juicy government defence contracts selling the army the equivalent of those silly rubber strips that superstitious people have hanging from the backs of their car tyres to “protect against static electricity”.

    There are plenty of far more workaday threats to our infrastructure of far greater probability of occurring that we should focus our attention on defending against – floods, the cascading breakdowns of the electrical grid when placed under stress that we saw both in Europe and Canada in the past couple of years; vulnerabilities caused by the just-in-time stocking and delivery mechanisms we operate in our society that make systems fragile in the event of even limited failures, and the degree of interdependency with single points of failure and reliance on sources of materials and energy that have no easy alternatives or options for rapid replacement in the event of supply problems.

    Let”s solve the real problems before we let ourselves worry about snake-oil salesmen peddling stories of scary boogeymen.

  7. The US Congressional EMP Commission work was reviewed by the US Congressional Service report of July 21, 2008 and supported. More importantly for many who question those with missile defense backgrounds, there is a near consensus of space weather specialists ranging from the National Academy of Sciences, NASA, NOAA and Department of Energy, that the 100 year solar storm is now projected to be ten times larger than previousy thought and could result in a one year black out with power rationing for 4 to 10 years afterwards.

    For this reasons, there are those looking to discover ways to harden civilian critical infrastructure from both the manmade and natural threats. Though the amount of critical infrastructure needing protection at some level is orders of magnitude larger than the needs of the military, there is little awareness of the combined threats though it is already included in the NFPA fire code 1600 for business continuity. For all practical purposes, there is no current civlian market.

    However, there are some of us who are looking to find creative ways to fund and protect these critical infrastructures without government funding. Hopefully, those who are cynical or scared will take the time to do their homework and find ways to use the EMP issue to make critical infrastructures and the communities they serve safer from all kinds of threats. I believe this can be done and welcome particpants from all sides of the issue to come to Niagara Falls this September 8-10 to discuss the issue further.

  8. There is a tv series called “Dark Angel” starring Jessica Alba.
    The setting is a post EMP attacked US, which became barely more than a thirld world nation afterwards. The creators of the show knew and portrayed very well the changes society went through after such an attack. I honestly don´t know if there is a real possibility this might happen someday, but If you would like to see how life would be after an effective EMP attack in a really accurate description, just watch the Dark Angel DVDs.

  9. >”There is a tv series called “Dark Angel” starring Jessica Alba.”

    Yes, but… Dark Angel is *science fiction*. It is no more relevant to a public policy debate than Lord of the Rings.

    >” Hopefully, those who are cynical or scared will take the time to do their homework and find ways to use the EMP issue to make critical infrastructures and the communities they serve safer from all kinds of threats. ”

    This sounds like an explicit request to overhype the danger in order to manipulate public opinion and spending priorities for covert reasons (other than those openly stated) through the creation of an artificially-exagerrated sense of fear, which is exactly what you have been being accused of. QED by your own admission.

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