The un­der-re­ported, in­vis­i­ble nu­clear threat

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary -

Our na­tion and the Depart­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity are rightly con­cerned about the threat from nu­clear ter­ror­ism. Ex­traor­di­nary ef­forts are un­der way to de­tect and pre­vent a ter­ror­ist op­er­a­tion from smug­gling a nu­clear weapon into a U.S. city or sea­port. New tech­nolo­gies, such as muon to­mog­ra­phy, are be­ing de­vel­oped to scan the in­te­rior of con­tain­ers and other ob­jects for nu­clear weapon ma­te­ri­als.

Yet there is an­other nu­clear threat to the U.S. home­land that could be posed by ter­ror­ists that is much less well-known — to our col­lec­tive peril. This other nu­clear threat is just as plau­si­ble and equally cred­i­ble when com­pared to the threat of a weapon smug­gled into the United States. Com­pared to a smug­gled nu­clear weapon det­o­nated in New York, D.C. or Los An­ge­les, this other nu­clear threat is po­ten­tially far more cat­a­strophic: in­stead of a sin­gle city, it could threaten the en­tire na­tion’s sur­vival.

But the DHS and their in­sti­tu­tional ad­vis­ers are so fix­ated on the “con­ven­tional wis­dom” of the threat from a nu­clear bomb smug­gled in that they are do­ing far too lit­tle to de­tect and pre­vent nu­clear ter­ror­ists and their state spon­sors from ex­e­cut­ing an elec­tro­mag­netic pulse (EMP) at­tack on the United States.

A high-alti­tude EMP re­sults from the det­o­na­tion of a nu­clear war­head at al­ti­tudes above 25 miles over the Earth’s sur­face, and cov­ers the area within line-of­sight from the bomb. The im­me­di­ate ef­fects of EMP are dis­rup­tion of, and dam­age to, elec­tronic sys­tems that are in­dis­pens­able to the op­er­a­tion of crit­i­cal na­tional in­fra­struc­tures — the elec­tric power grid, wired and cell tele­phone sys­tems, fuel han­dling, land and air trans­porta­tion, gov­ern­ment op­er­a­tions, bank­ing and fi­nance, food stor­age and dis­tri­bu­tion, and wa­ter treat­ment and sup­ply — that sus­tain our econ­omy, mil­i­tary power and civil­ian pop­u­la­tion.

Our vul­ner­a­bil­ity to EMP at­tack is in­creas­ing daily as our de­pen­dence on elec­tron­ics con­tin­ues to grow. The im­pact of EMP is asym­met­ric in re­la­tion to po­ten­tial an­tag­o­nists who are less de­pen­dent on mod­ern elec­tron­ics.

The re­cov­ery from EMP at­tack of any one of the key na­tional in­fra­struc­tures is de­pen­dent on the re­cov­ery of oth­ers, in the same way their nor­mal op­er­a­tions are in­ter­de­pen­dent. The longer the out­age, the more prob­lem­atic and un­cer­tain the re­cov­ery would be. It is pos­si­ble for the func­tional out­ages to be­come mu­tu­ally re­in­forc­ing, un­til at some point the degra­da­tion of crit­i­cal na­tional in­fra­struc­tures could ir­re­versibly af­fect U.S. abil­ity to sup­port its pop­u­la­tion and sus­tain its role in the world.

Sev­eral po­ten­tial ad­ver­saries have the knowl­edge and the re­sources to at­tack the United States with a high-alti­tude nu­cle­ar­weapon-gen­er­ated EMP, and oth­ers ap­pear to be pur­su­ing ef­forts to ob­tain that ca­pa­bil­ity. A de­ter­mined ad­ver­sary could carry out an EMP at­tack without hav­ing the high level of tech­ni­cal so­phis­ti­ca­tion of a ma­jor na­tion.

One sce­nario of spe­cial con- cern is an EMP at­tack against the United States launched from an or­di­nary freighter off the U.S. coast us­ing a short- or medium-range mis­sile to loft a nu­clear war­head to high-alti­tude (such mis­siles are read­ily avail­able on the world ar­ma­ments black mar­ket).

Ter­ror­ists spon­sored by a hos­tile state could try to launch such an at­tack without re­veal­ing the spon­sors’ iden­tity. Iran, the world’s lead­ing spon­sor of in­ter­na­tional ter­ror­ism, has prac­ticed launch­ing a mo­bile bal­lis­tic mis­sile from a ves­sel in the Caspian Sea. Iran has also tested high-alti­tude ex­plo­sions of its Sha­habIII bal­lis­tic mis­sile, a test mode con­sis­tent with EMP at­tack. Ira­nian mil­i­tary writ­ings ex­plic­itly dis­cuss a nu­clear EMP at­tack that would de­stroy the United States. Con­nect­ing the dots is not dif­fi­cult.

De­signs for mis­sile-launched nu­clear weapons may have been il­lic­itly traf­ficked for at least a quar­ter-cen­tury. Re­cently, as re­ported in the press, United Na­tions in­ves­ti­ga­tors found the de­sign for an ad­vanced nu­clear weapon, minia­tur­ized to fit bal­lis­tic mis­siles cur­rently in the in­ven­tory of Iran, North Korea and other po­ten­tially hos­tile states, was in the pos­ses­sion of Swiss na­tion­als af­fil­i­ated with the A.Q. Khan nu­clear pro­lif­er­a­tion net­work.

This sug­gests that ad­di­tional nu­clear weapon de­signs may also be in the pos­ses­sion of hos­tile states and of states that spon­sor ter­ror­ism. How­ever, even a prim­i­tive, low-yield mod­ern day “en­try- level” nu­clear weapon could be used to con­duct an EMP at­tack.

Why is the Depart­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity mov­ing ag­gres­sively to pro­tect Amer­ica’s cities and sea­ports from nu­clear ter­ror­ists smug­gling in a nu­clear weapon but over­look­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of EMP at­tack? Their as­sump­tion is that if ter­ror­ists ac­quire a nu­clear weapon, they would cer­tainly pre­fer to det­o­nate it in a ma­jor metropoli­tan area, rather than at­tack an en­tire seaboard or even the whole na­tion with EMP.

The as­sump­tion that a nu­clear weapon would be used against us in only one way is un­war­ranted, as an EMP at­tack of­fers some sig­nif­i­cant ad­van­tages over smug­gling.

Smug­gling a nu­clear weapon into a U.S. city is risky, and be­com­ing in­creas­ingly so, as home­land se­cu­rity mea­sures im­prove. Sig­nif­i­cant in­vest­ments are be­ing made in mea­sures to de­feat such at­tempts. In con­trast, an EMP at­tack us­ing a mis­sile launched from a ship out­side U.S.-con­trolled wa­ters elim­i­nates most of the op­er­a­tional haz­ards of smug­gling a nu­clear weapon into a U.S. port or city. More­over, it of­fers less op­por­tu­nity for de­tec­tion, less risk of weapon seizure, less risk of crewmem­ber de­fec­tion, greater dif­fi­culty for the United States in con­duct­ing foren­sic anal­y­sis to de­ter­mine who spon­sored the at­tack, less cer­tainty of prompt re­tal­i­a­tion and greater long-term, po­ten­tially cat­a­strophic con­se­quences for the na­tion.

In­deed, EMP at­tack is the only nu­clear op­tion where one or two nu­clear weapons could gravely dam­age the en­tire United States, and give ter­ror­ism a large-scale victory from at­tack­ing the U.S.

While an EMP at­tack on our crit­i­cal na­tional in­fra­struc­tures is one of the most se­ri­ous ter­ror­ist and hos­tile state threats fac­ing our na­tion, the United States need not be vul­ner­a­ble to the cat­a­strophic con­se­quences of such an at­tack. The na­tion owes the re­cent progress made to­ward ad­dress­ing EMP to the lead­er­ship of Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, Mary­land Repub­li­can, and one of the few sci­en­tists in Congress, whose con­cern led him to ini­ti­ate leg­is­la­tion that es­tab­lished the com­mis­sion that I chair to ad­dress the EMP threat.

The EMP Com­mis­sion has pro­posed rec­om­men­da­tions that, over a five-year pe­riod, at rea­son­able cost, would en­able the United States to pre­pare, train, pro­tect and re­cover its in­fra­struc­tures against EMP at­tack. This same plan would also help pro­tect crit­i­cal na­tional in­fra­struc­tures from other threats, in­clud­ing cy­ber at­tack, sab­o­tage and nat­u­ral dis­as­ters such as very large ge­o­mag­netic storms and ma­jor hur­ri­canes.

Con­tin­ued fail­ure to pro­tect the United States from EMP in­vites at­tack.

More in­for­ma­tion, in­clud­ing the EMP Com­mis­sion’s re­port on the EMP threat to the Crit­i­cal Na­tional In­fra­struc­ture, can be found at www.Em­p­com­mis­sion.org

William R. Gra­ham is an en­gi­neer and physi­cist who was di­rec­tor of the Of­fice of Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy Pol­icy and sci­ence ad­viser to Pres­i­dent Rea­gan.

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