- - Thursday, November 28, 2013

Next year, the North American Aerospace Defense Command will test an innovative weapon called the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System, or JLENS, at the Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground, 63 air miles from the nation’s capital. Integrated with existing defenses, the system would protect the capital from short-range missile threats. The rest of America? Not so much.

On Sept. 11, 2001, we experienced the horror of terrorists in airliners. Tight domestic and international security measures minimized that threat, so what else endangers the homeland? Intercontinental ballistic missiles, for the moment, are in arsenals of countries deterred from using them by our triad of bombers, land-based missiles and submarine-launched missiles. Though several deranged pilots have aimed their private planes at the White House, modern radar, aircraft and missiles have ensured that no one has come close since a light plane crashed on the White House lawn in 1994. Nevertheless, America still faces a remaining threat: short-range ballistic missiles and cruise missiles launched from the decks of commercial ships.

Club K, a launch system disguised as an ordinary 40-foot shipping container that holds four cruise missiles, already exists. It is offered for sale by a private Russian arms company, Concern Morinformsystem-Agat based in Moscow. Those Club K missiles are much more dangerous than they seem at first glance. Hidden among the 6 million shipping containers that come to our shores annually, Club K warheads could contain chemical- or germ-warfare agents. Even more deadly, they could have Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) warheads.

The EMP threat to the American homeland challenges description. A large EMP warhead exploded high over the center of the United States would completely disable the entire national electrical grid. Aircraft would fall out of the sky, vehicle engines would die, communications, the Internet and computers would fry, and civilization on the continent would be set back a century.

We knew years ago that Iran was testing Scud missiles launched from barges in the Caspian Sea. The trajectory of those short-range ballistic missiles simulated an EMP attack, and the Iranians declared the tests successful. In testimony before the House Armed Services Committee in 2008, William Graham, former White House science adviser to President Reagan, warned that the U.S. intelligence community “doesn’t have a story” to explain the Iranian tests other than as practice for an EMP attack.

The EMP threat has grown. Last month, Peter Pry, executive director of the Congressional Task Force on National and Homeland Security, addressed an American Center for Democracy symposium titled “Energy, Space and Cyber Security — Current and Future Threats.” Among other revelations, he said Russia and China have developed a “super-EMP weapon” that uses a very small nuclear warhead to generate a tremendous EMP pulse. Such a warhead launched just 80 miles above the Eastern Seaboard would knock out the eastern grid and 70 percent of U.S. electrical power. Such an attack would collapse critical infrastructures.

Mr. Pry also said that in 2004, two Russian generals, experts on EMP, revealed there had been a technology leak from Russia to North Korea on the Super-EMP weapon and that North Korea could build one in a few years. In 2006, the first of several very-low-yield nuclear tests by North Korea were detected. Though labeled as duds by casual observers, those tests fit the exact profile of the Super-EMP weapon. Close cooperation between North Korea and Iran on missile and nuclear technology is a matter of record. Thus, those two nations either have a Super-EMP weapon capability now or will in the near future.

Can we defend ourselves? In his book “Apocalypse Unknown,” Mr. Pry estimates we could harden our entire national electrical grid against EMP attacks for $500 million. Congress and the electric utilities have failed to appropriate those funds, but another solution could be found at Aberdeen Proving Ground: JLENS.

A chain of JLENS shore sites integrated with Patriot anti-missile batteries and Aegis shore units with their SM-3 anti-missile missiles, could add new eyes in the sky, looking after the defense of our Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf coastlines. The components exist and have been successfully tested against short-range ballistic missiles, such as the Scud, as well as cruise missiles. Let’s get on with the Aberdeen tests and then protect not only the capital area, but the entire homeland.

Peter Hannaford is a member of the board of the Committee on the Present Danger.