- - Wednesday, September 27, 2017


In our recent article, “Countering North Korea’s nuclear blackmail,” we argued for preparing to counter this threat — emphasizing North Korea’s explicit claim that an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack was among its “strategic goals.” We pointed to an important Aug. 16 article in The Washington Times by William R. Graham and Peter Vincent Pry, which explained how this threat has been ignored for years, even though the idea was invented in the 1950s and the EMP commissioners were informed in 2004 by Russian generals that “Russia’s super-EMP warhead design was transferred ‘accidentally’ to North Korea.”

Messrs. Graham and Pry also observed these super-EMP weapons could be delivered by satellites, like those launched by North Korea in 2012 and 2016 to approach the United States from our poorly protected South. They could be detonated above the atmosphere to shut down our electric power grid for an extended period, leading to the death of millions of Americans from starvation, disease and societal collapse. This attack strategy avoids the atmospheric re-entry and accuracy issues that critics claim are still unaddressed by recent advancements.

Since then, North Korea reportedly tested underground a 250 kiloton device — over twice the initial widely advertised estimates by the press. Moreover, it is no longer disputed that it was a hydrogen bomb (H-bomb), and North Korea’s recent ballistic missile test demonstrated it could reach Guam. Few now dispute our claim that North Korea’s ballistic missiles can reach Hawaii, Alaska and the continental U.S.

The Defense Intelligence Agency is reported to indicate that North Korea now has some 60 nuclear weapons that could be delivered by their ICBMs — rather than a few as it previously estimated. At least some of these 60 nukes could be super-EMP weapons like those the EMP Commission warned of in 2004.

North Korea’s claims — however unpleasant — have been more accurate than those from our intelligence community and other elite projections.

Reporters and alleged experts, who should understand these recently revealed realities, continue to understate this North Korean threat. For example, our quick review of the mainstream press indicated no reference to the implications of actions for delivering a possible EMP attack, as recently explicitly threatened by North Korea.

Even Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, ignored this existential EMP threat while discussing on “Face The Nation” recently the implications of the recent escalation in these demonstrated advances in the North Korean threat. Perhaps he and others on Capitol Hill have been misled by the press.

Perhaps this is also why the House of Representatives would disband the EMP Commission, unless blocked by the Senate in the upcoming House-Senate conference on the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for 2018 — in which Mr. McCain will lead the Senate conferees. The EMP Commissioners, who have served without compensation since 2001, comprise the only truly experienced expert body on EMP effects and how to protect against them.

The House would disband the current commission and start over, assuring a major delay in forming a new commission. Unless the conferees rectify this action, such a major break (probably a year or more if past experience is a guide) would be most disruptive when the current commissioners’ expertise is most needed.

Lawmakers must also reconsider how best to evaluate our future strategic alternatives in dealing with a North Korea.

Mr. McCain correctly noted that we must place “incredible emphasis on missile defense” — and not only in South Korea, as he emphasized in his recent Sunday interview. Indeed, effective missile defense systems are most important in deterring the growing threat and countering it should deterrence fail.

Fortunately, we have several near-term alternatives, which should be exploited as quickly as possible.

Existing nearby U.S. and Japanese Aegis ballistic missile defense (BMD) ships can exploit an integrated sensor system network to be a major help. Nearby and even distant Aegis ships are potentially important in providing this defensive capability — provided their sailors are trained and ready. Aegis ship captains need to be pre-authorized to fire quickly those interceptors under their command.

Tests long ago demonstrated that some Aegis ships can intercept attacking ballistic missiles while they are on the way up until they exceed our defending interceptor’s altitude capability — and more distant Aegis ships may intercept them on their way down. These capabilities were implicit in 2008 when the Navy’s first minimally tested interceptor shot down a satellite.

In addition, we have aircraft that, if we augment their existing capabilities, can accomplish boost-phase intercepts to shoot down North Korean ballistic missiles while they rise from their launch pads. The Missile Defense Agency has just issued a contract to General Atomic to prepare its Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle for launching such “boost phase interceptors.”

These developments will likely take many months. Before then, Air Force and Navy fighter aircraft (and those of over 20 other nations) can launch existing air-to-air missile interceptors to accomplish this objective, while patrolling over international waters around North Korea.

Given President Trump’s warning to North Korea in his recent speech to the United Nations, we need to move as rapidly to provide the most effective defenses possible. The National Defense Authorization Act conferees should consider such initiatives to provide greater support for our ballistic missile defenses.

Moreover, they should re-establish the EMP Commission, this time within a White House office with a direct channel to the president. He the only federal official now charged, under his oath of office, to provide for the common defense, with the authority for a “whole of government” response to protect America’s civil infrastructure against EMP attack.

 Henry F. Cooper was President Reagan’s chief negotiator in the Geneva Defense and Space Talks and President George H.W. Bush’s Strategic Defense Initiative director. Robert Laidley is president of the Atlantic and Conservation Institute.

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