Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Earlier today I went to a meeting (organised by the Henry Jackson Society) in one of the more remote Commons Committee Rooms chaired by James Arbuthnot MP, the Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence.  He began by intoning that we were all attending “the most important meeting you will ever go to”.  I am not sure about that, but it was undoubtedly one of the scariest I have ever attended.

It was addressed by Avi Schnurr, President of EMPACT (The EMP Awareness Coordination Taskforce) and concerned the threat of an electro-magnetic pulse that could permanently disable the electricity grid and most electrical systems.

In 1962, the United States conducted “Starfish Prime,” a nuclear weapon test over a remote region of the Pacific Ocean. The test was successful, with one unexpected result: fifteen hundred kilometers away in Hawaii streetlights burned out, TV sets and radios failed and power lines fused. This was unexpected and demonstrated that a nuclear warhead set off above the atmosphere causes an Electromagnetic Pulse, or EMP. Unlike a ground burst, an EMP blast can mean (depending on how high in the atmosphere the explosion takes place) continent-wide catastrophe, a capability potentially in the hands of any rogue nation or terror organization that can acquire a single nuclear-tipped missile.

With some of the world’s most unstable regional powers acquiring or already in possession of nuclear weapons, the United States Congress established the Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Commission, tasked with evaluating this growing threat. The Commission, based on testimony from throughout the federal government, warned that America’s current vulnerability invites attack. They concluded, remarkably, that “EMP is capable of causing catastrophe for the nation,” as “one of a small number of threats that has the potential to hold our society seriously at risk, and might result in defeat of our military forces.”

During the Cold War, the USA and the USSR relied on deterrence, but because of the threat from EMP (which could have limited their capacity to respond after a first warhead had detonated) both would have responded to a single missile in flight by a full maximum response within minutes - hence the briefcase with the codes that still follows the US President.

However, if one postulates a rogue state or a rogue group having access to a quite small nuclear device and a rocket powerful enough to send it into the upper atmosphere above the target nation or nations (perhaps launched from a boat), deterrence is no longer the answer.  The attraction for a North Korea or an Iran (and in both countries there is evidence according to Avi Schnurr that the military elites are not only aware of the potential of EMP attack but have also actively discussed it) is the comparative simplicity of delivering such an attack that would disable the United States or Europe and that it could be done stealthily.  The same attraction would also be there for terrorist groups.

And there is no question that the effect of an EMP attack could be devastating.  Electricity grids would be destroyed as transformers burnt out (and although these could be replaced the process would take years and again according to Avi Schnurr there is only one company in the world that makes the transformers on which the US electricity grid relies).  Control systems for parts of the critical infrastructure (eg the water supply) and even for vehicles would be destroyed by an EMP attack.  For a significant period the infrastructure could not function, distribution systems (eg for food) would not function, and the internet would not work.  Given the nature of modern society, social structures would break down very rapidly.

And as if the threat from a rogue state or terrorists was not enough, electromagnetic pulses can occur naturally as part of solar activity. Avi Schnurr quoted the US National Academy of Sciences as warning that solar activity can produce effects of equivalent magnitude and does so approximately every hundred years or so.  The last such massive solar surge was in 1859 and shorted out telegraph wires and caused widespread fires.  The next occasion when there might be such a surge is 2012 (although it might not be the big one, but that is when the next peak of solar activity is anticipated).

I will have to check but I don’t remember any of this being mentioned in last month’s National Security Strategy.  I can feel some Parliamentary Questions coming on. (lordtobyharris, 7.0 6.2009)

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