America’s epitaph may be: “Died of stupidity.”
For 17 years, the Congressional EMP Commission warned that a nuclear electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack would black out electric grids and other life-sustaining critical infrastructures, posing an existential threat to our electronic civilization.
The EMP threat is proven by:
• High-altitude (above 30 kilometers) nuclear tests by the U.S. and Russia.
• Decades of underground nuclear testing.
• More than 50 years of testing by EMP simulators.
• Known destructive effects of natural EMP from solar storms, non-nuclear EMP weapons, accidental electromagnetic transients (all typically less powerful than nuclear EMP).
• Known fragility of electric grids and other critical infrastructures to EMP and cascading failures from a wide variety of causes.
• Russia, China and North Korea featuring EMP in war plans and testing nuclear weapons capable of EMP attack.
Yet ignorant journalists, academics, non-experts posing as EMP specialists, and deep strategic thinkers dominate press reporting that the EMP threat is “not real” and “merely theoretical” and “untested.”
Unfortunately, enough people in the U.S. government have imbibed such uninformed nonsense that recommendations of the EMP Commission to protect the nation are ignored.
For the sake of argument, let us suppose EMP naysayers are correct, the threat is “merely theoretical” and “untested.” Does this justify leaving the nation vulnerable to the supposedly “unproven” existential threat from an EMP?
Military history and common sense answers this question in the negative. EMP naysayers can begin their re-education by reading Bernard Brodie’s history of military technology, “From Crossbow to H-Bomb.”
Since before Alexander the Great introduced the sarissa, a spear twice as long as those typically in use in 300 B.C., and the Macedonian phalanx employing the sarissas in conquest of the Persian Empire, warfare has often been the story of new technologies and new tactics surprising and prevailing over the old. New technologies and tactics are almost always “unproven” and “untested” until winning decisively on the battlefield, as Alexander did at Issus (333 B.C.) and Guagamela (331 B.C.), introducing a new way of warfare.
Scholars call such breakthroughs in military technology and tactics a “revolution in military affairs.” Some other examples:
• Battle of Cynoscephalae (197 B.C.): The Macedonian phalanx and Hellenistic Empire is eventually conquered by Rome’s use of new technologies and tactics in their legions, including military roads and battlefield artillery, like the scorpion and catapult.
• Battle of Adrianople (324 A.D.): Foot-powered Roman legions are defeated by cavalry that becomes dominant on the battlefield.
• Battle of Crecy (1346 A.D.): The longbow and cannon herald doom of mounted knights, castles and the Age of Feudalism.
• Battle of the ironclads Monitor and Virginia (1862): Never before tested in combat, the ironclads make obsolete the age of sail and wooden frigates, revolutionizing naval warfare.
• Battle of France (1940): Nazi Germany’s surprise Blitzkrieg (“Lighting War”) of tanks and air power, and Imperial Japan’s surprise use of carrier aviation at Pearl Harbor (1941), nearly wins World War II, and these technological and tactical innovations become the basis for modern conventional warfare.
In the nuclear missile age, “untested” and “unproven” technologies are the norm for deterring and, if necessary, fighting nuclear wars that have been, since 1946, entirely theoretical. Yet science and engineering have so advanced that nuclear weapons and their various effects are more assuredly destructive than any previous military technology.
For example, the Hiroshima atomic bombing (1945) was done with a uranium-fueled gun-type weapon never proven or tested. (The Trinity atomic test was a plutonium-fueled implosion A-bomb used on Nagasaki.)
The phenomenology of making an optimized nuclear blast — detonating an A-bomb a half-mile above Hiroshima so the shock wave would reflect off the ground, creating a secondary shock wave reinforcing the first and significantly increasing the lethal radius — was entirely theoretical and never done before or tested. If the Hiroshima A-bomb yielded 1-kiloton instead of 10-kilotons detonating a half-mile high, it would have been a dud, with the entire U.S. stockpile of weapons-grade uranium lost over Japan.
Yet the Hiroshima atomic bombing worked perfectly, a “miracle” of modern science.
Other examples abound where the calculational super-competence of modern science and engineering are alone sufficient to “prove” nuclear weapon systems for use “untested”:
• No U.S. ICBMs have ever been singly or salvo-launched from operational missile silos to prove capability by testing.
• No U.S. submarines have ever proved “ripple-firing” all of their 16-24 missiles in testing.
• Since the U.S.-USSR 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty, 54 years ago, nuclear ground-bursts, airbursts and exo-atmospheric bursts have not been tested.
• Since the 1974 Threshold Test Ban Treaty 43 years ago, U.S. nuclear weapons with yields above 150 kilotons (most strategic weapons) have been untested.
Since 1992, 25 years ago, no U.S. nuclear weapons — not one — has been tested. But all 1,500 are certified yearly as safe and ready, another “miracle” of modern science upon which depends the foundation of U.S. national security — nuclear deterrence.
But North Korea may not be deterred if the U.S. fails to protect against the well-proven threat from EMP — leaving America vulnerable.
So ignore the ignorant EMP naysayers. Vulnerability to an existential threat is never a good idea.
• Peter Vincent Pry is chief of staff of the congressional EMP Commission and served in the House Armed Services Committee and the CIA.