The EMP(ty) threat
Bill Gertz’s account of the threat of an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack (“U.S. seen vulnerable to space ‘pulse’ attack” Nation, Tuesday) gives readers a distorted picture. Though EMP is a real effect of nuclear detonations and can wreak havoc on electrical systems and electronics, it would be difficult for terrorists to pull off. Nation-states that would attempt such an attack would face nuclear retaliation from the United States, which during the Cold War shielded its nuclear command and control systems from the possibility of EMP effects from an exchange with the Soviet Union.
There is a significant factual error in the article. Mr. Gertz notes that according to the book “War Footing: 10 Steps America Must Take to Prevail in the War for the Free World,” “North Korea sells its own version of the Scud for around $100,000.” As Steven Zaloga, a missile expert at the Teal Group Corp. and author of the book “The Scud,” told me for an article on EMP that I wrote for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists this fall, “A price of $100,000 for a Scud might refer to a non-working training model, but not a functional weapon.” Mr. Zaloga is unsure what the going rate for a North Korean extended-range Scud would be, but a baseline Russian-made Scud (which is no longer made) would cost between $1 million and $2 million by itself. The cost of the launch system would be significantly more.
If terrorists did manage to build a nuclear weapon, it is highly improbable that they could produce an efficient EMP-producing nuclear weapon, according to nuclear physicist Richard L. Garwin, who also published one of the first theoretical papers on EMP.
Philip Coyle, former Pentagon director of operational test and evaluation, e-mailed Global Security Newswire that even “the U.S. military does not know how to [create thermonuclear-scale EMP from a Hiroshima-size weapon] today and has no way of demonstrating the capability in the future without returning to nuclear testing.”
When the United States does not have this ability, it’s unlikely, needless to say, that terrorist or “rogue” states could easily accomplish such a technological feat. It is much more likely that terrorists would build a relatively low-yield improvised nuclear device (smaller in magnitude than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, but still devastating if detonated in a city).
States could assist terrorist groups in achieving an EMP attack, but this scenario still runs into the technological hurdles of producing a nuclear weapon that could produce significant amounts of EMP. Without such a Super-EMP weapon, a terrorist group could not hope to impact a vast swath of the continental United States with one weapon detonated at high altitude.
EMP definitely is a factor to consider in conflict scenarios of a war with China over Taiwan because China has thermonuclear weapons and Taiwan covers a much smaller geographic area than the United States. (This is the scenario noted in “The Military Power of the People’s Republic of China 2005,” which Mr. Gertz cites as the “recent Pentagon report.”)
However, more scrutiny should be given to scenarios of an EMP attack on the United States by terrorists before we spend the $20 billion to $200 billion dollars the EMP Commission estimates the United States would have to spend to harden its critical infrastructure from such an attack.
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