Having been a longstanding fan of STRATFOR, I was recently deeply disappointed by an article written by Scott Stewart and Nate Hughes entitled Gauging the Threat of an Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack. Not only does this piece dismiss the EMP threat—ranking EMP below port security as a national security priority—it completely disregards the findings of several Congressional Commissions and official government studies that all concurred that EMP is a high priority threat that demands immediate action by the government and investment of our scarce national security resources.
These Commissions and studies by DOE, NAS, and NASA did not examine EMP in isolation, but in their deliberations weighed the various threats before making their recommendations. The very purpose of Congressional Commissions is to make such assessments, and weigh the competing threats, before making their recommendations to Congressional and Executive policymakers.
Normally I would not respond to an article that trivializes EMP. But, as I highly respect STRATFOR and its contributors, I assume this article was merely misinformed and not politically driven, and that STRATFOR might be open to learning more about the EMP threat and possibly revising their views.
First, the EMP threat from terrorists, rogue states, China, Russia and Mother Nature (the inevitable occurrence of a great geomagnetic storm) is a settled question as a matter of official public policy, and no longer controversial. Since the EMP Commission delivered its report to Congress and the Secretary of Defense in 2004, DOD has used the EMP Commission's threat assessment as its baseline, and is legally obligated to report to Congress on its progress in implementing EMP Commission recommendations to protect U.S. military forces. Likewise, Congress regards nuclear and natural EMP as a high priority threat, which is why HR 5026 (the Grid Reliability and Infrastructure Defense Act), that is designed to protect the electric grid from all hazards—including nuclear and natural EMP—passed the House unanimously, in a unique show of bipartisanship in this heated election year. Controversy over the EMP threat these days is mostly among non-expert pundits and scientific cranks writing in places like the Huffington Post.
Second, I was very disappointed in the lack of weight, and lack of respect, that STRATFOR gave to the EMP Commission. Few in the press seem to understand that the purpose of Congressional Commissions is to try to resolve controversy and build consensus within the Defense and Intelligence communities when there is disagreement—as there once was over EMP—on matters of vital concern to national security. For this reason, Congressional Commissions, like the EMP Commission, are comprised of the nation's best and most respected subject matter experts, senior scientists and analysts whose credentials and reputations command bipartisan respect in Congress and in the Defense and Intelligence agencies. The EMP Commissioners and staff were this nation's best and brightest authorities on EMP, nuclear weapons, missiles, and critical infrastructures. Moreover, the EMP Commission had at its command all of the analytical and intelligence resources of the Department of Defense, the Intelligence Community, and the National Laboratories. The EMP Commissioners worked for eight years (without pay) with the Defense and Intelligence communities, hearing all points of view, and conducting numerous scientific experiments in EMP simulators, in the process of making their threat assessment.
Because of the great weight legitimately accorded to the judgments of Congressional Commissions, typically a single Congressional Commission suffices to resolve controversy and establish official consensus on a public policy. For example, the Marsh Commission established that cyber attacks are a real threat, and became the basis for the vast administrative apparatus at the federal, state, and local levels dedicated to cyber security. The Rumsfeld Commission established that the U.S. really needed to worry about emerging rogue-state missile threats, and became the basis for withdrawing from the ABM Treaty and establishing the National Missile Defense. The WMD Commission accomplished significantly improved preparedness against BW threats.
The nuclear and natural EMP threat is more studied and better established as a legitimate concern than all of the above. The EMP Commission is not alone in its assessment that natural and nuclear EMP is a clear and present danger, deserving high priority. In 2008, after the EMP Commission delivered its final report, the National Academy of Sciences did a blue ribbon study independently investigating the EMP Commission's warning about the need to prepare our infrastructures against a great geomagnetic storm—concurring with the EMP Commission—and urged immediate implementation of the Commission's recommendations. In 2009, another bipartisan Congressional Commission, the Strategic Posture Commission, chaired by former Defense Secretary William Perry, independently re-examined the EMP threat from terrorists and rogue states, confirmed the EMP Commission's threat assessment, and urged immediate implementation of the EMP Commission's recommendations. In June 2010, the Department of Energy released another official study that independently re-examined the EMP threat from Nature, rogues and terrorists, concurring with the EMP Commission, and urged immediate implementation of Commission recommendations.
Are all these Commission reports and official studies warning that the EMP threat deserves high priority mistaken?
Third, the STRATFOR article written by Scott Stewart and Nate Hughes errs on a number of technical points:
A high-yield warhead is not necessary to make an EMP attack that would collapse the electric grid and other critical infrastructures, with catastrophic consequences for the survival of millions of Americans. The EMP Commission found that ANY nuclear warhead, even a crude first-generation weapon or a low-yield nuclear artillery shell, poses a potentially catastrophic EMP threat to the grid and infrastructures. This is because the grid is decrepit, always operating on the verge of failure, and modern electronics that support the infrastructures are over one million times more vulnerable to EMP than 1960s-era electronics.
The article overstates the difficulty of developing a warhead for delivery by missile. Israel, Pakistan, India, and North Korea all reportedly have developed nuclear warheads for missiles. Iran reportedly is already designing, or has mastered the design, for a missile nuclear warhead. An EMP attack could also be made using a meteorological balloon to loft the warhead to high-altitude, by the way.
While it is true that EMP effects on a particular target depend on a complex host of factors that make specific prediction difficult, the net effects are known within very comfortable parameters. EMP is analogous to a massed artillery barrage. In an artillery barrage, you do not know specifically who or what you will kill, but you can have high confidence you will kill a lot of people and things. Any adversary who reads our newspapers, who knows the often trivial causes of multi-state blackouts, will rightly have high confidence that an EMP attack would have catastrophic consequences.
A ship-launched EMP attack using a short-range missile, even at the lowest altitude for an EMP attack (40 kms), will generate an EMP field over a vast, multi-state region, and very likely cause cascading failures that would collapse the critical infrastructures across the entire contiguous United States. Damage is not limited to the footprint of the EMP field.
An EMP attack will leave no collectible bomb debris for nuclear forensics to ascertain who made the bomb, because the warhead detonates in space. In contrast, a nuclear weapon detonated in a port or city is ideal for collecting bomb debris and nuclear forensics so we can discover the culprit—and turn their nation into a plate of glass. This is known to the bad guys, who would obviously prefer that their nuclear attack remain anonymous.
A nuclear bomb detonated in a port or city may kill thousands of Americans, but has no prospect of eliminating the United States as an actor on the world stage. EMP attack is the only nuclear option where terrorists or rogue states could destroy the United States with a single weapon.
The EMP Commission Report is ultimately a "good news" story, as the Commission provided a plan to relatively quickly (within a few years) and cost-effectively protect the United States from EMP. There is no technical or financial excuse for the United States to be vulnerable to EMP. The worst consequences of an EMP attack could be mitigated, and at least the possibility of survival for millions of Americans increased significantly, by spending as little as $100 million to protect key transformers in the national electric grid.
Fourth, Mr. Hughes and Mr. Stewart from STRATFOR assert that no state would dare provide terrorists with a nuclear bomb. But North Korea will sell anything to anyone—and has even asserted its right to sell nuclear weapons to the State Department. Russia, allegedly the Russian Mafia, sold to Saddam's Iraq sophisticated guidance systems from half their fleet of SS-N-18 SLBMs—this is "crown jewel" technology, as sensitive as nuclear weapons, akin to the U.S. Mafia somehow stealing and selling the AIRS guidance system from half of our Minuteman IIIA ICBMs. Iran—the world's leading sponsor of international terrorism—is already risking its existence by killing American soldiers and leading the bad guys against us in the War on Terrorism. Even President Obama, no hawk, fears Iran would give terrorists their "Islamic Bomb." If the Taliban had a nuclear weapon prior to 9/11, do you really believe that they would not have given it to Al Qaeda, or used it themselves?
As to the authors’ skepticism about terrorists getting the bomb, I certainly agree that the least likely scenario is for terrorists to build the bomb themselves. However, we all agree that there exists the real prospect of a state actor providing a nuclear weapon to terrorists. North Korea has sold its best ballistic missile, the No Dong, to Iran and Pakistan, in flagrant violation of the MTCR—why not sell nukes too? I might more readily believe the assurances that North Korea will not sell nukes if they had not threatened to do so, and if Iranians were not present at the 2006 and 2008 DPRK nuclear tests. Indeed, the IAEA believes the DPRK sold to Syria the means to make nuclear weapons—even better than selling a single nuke—until the plant was bombed by Israel. One of the few things that President Bush and President Obama agree upon is that Iran will give nukes to terrorists, so I guess I am in acceptable company.
Hughes and Stewart go on to say that EMP has become "politicized." I am not sure what is meant by this. We are in a democracy, and in the vicinity of Washington, where all policy choices have a political dimension. The closest you can come in this town to being apolitical is bipartisanship—and EMP wins that test hands down, given the support for EMP protection by bipartisan Congressional Commissions and within Congress itself on a bipartisan basis, where liberals and conservatives are united on this issue.
I am disappointed that STRATFOR readers did not read that the EMP Commission found that Iran, North Korea, China and Russia all include EMP attack against the United States in their military doctrines.
Iran writes explicitly about destroying the United States by a nuclear EMP attack. Iran has practiced launching the Shahab III MRBM for detonation at high-altitude—the signature of an EMP attack. Iran has practiced launching missiles off a vessel in the Caspian Sea, as if training for ship-launched EMP attack. Equally compelling evidence points to North Korean interest in EMP attack. In offering your threat assessment on EMP, don't your readers deserve to know these facts?
Finally, even if Mr. Stewart and Mr. Hughes remain agnostic on the EMP threat from terrorists and nations, there is the natural EMP threat from a great geomagnetic storm. Everyone, liberals and conservatives alike, recognizes this as a real—and inevitable—threat to our civilization, against which we must be prepared.
The policy choice before us is not either EMP or port security or BW/CW protection or NMD. We need to do all these things, and are doing all these things, including protecting against EMP. Obviously, we cannot do everything. But we must and have found a way to at least afford protecting against those threats that are clear and present dangers and that could destroy our civilization.
The serious debate over EMP has already taken place within the Defense and Intelligence communities via several Commissions and official studies—and that EMP is a serious threat that we must protect against is a settled question. DOD and Congress are both acting now; it is a shame that STRATFOR didn’t get the memo.