November 23, 2008

What a Single Nuclear Warhead Could Do

Lest we forget exactly what the stakes were in the late election, Brian Kennedy, president of the Claremont Institute and a member of the Independent Working Group on Missile Defense, remind us in this important article from the Wall St. Journal:

Although President George W. Bush has accomplished more in the way of missile defense than his predecessors -- including Ronald Reagan -- he will leave office with only a rudimentary system designed to stop a handful of North Korean missiles launched at our West Coast. Barack Obama will become commander in chief of a country essentially undefended against Russian, Chinese, Iranian or ship-launched terrorist missiles. This is not acceptable....
Think about this scenario: An ordinary-looking freighter ship heading toward New York or Los Angeles launches a missile from its hull or from a canister lowered into the sea. It hits a densely populated area. A million people are incinerated. The ship is then sunk. No one claims responsibility. There is no firm evidence as to who sponsored the attack, and thus no one against whom to launch a counterstrike....
But as terrible as that scenario sounds, there is one that is worse. Let us say the freighter ship launches a nuclear-armed Shahab-3 missile off the coast of the U.S. and the missile explodes 300 miles over Chicago. The nuclear detonation in space creates an electromagnetic pulse (EMP).
Gamma rays from the explosion, through the Compton Effect, generate three classes of disruptive electromagnetic pulses, which permanently destroy consumer electronics, the electronics in some automobiles and, most importantly, the hundreds of large transformers that distribute power throughout the U.S. All of our lights, refrigerators, water-pumping stations, TVs and radios stop running. We have no communication and no ability to provide food and water to 300 million Americans.
This is what is referred to as an EMP attack, and such an attack would effectively throw America back technologically into the early 19th century. It would require the Iranians to be able to produce a warhead as sophisticated as we expect the Russians or the Chinese to possess. But that is certainly attainable. Common sense would suggest that, absent food and water, the number of people who could die of deprivation and as a result of social breakdown might run well into the millions. -- What a Single Nuclear Warhead Could Do -
Other than that, enjoy the rest of your week.

Posted by Vanderleun at November 23, 2008 2:18 AM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

There is a recent Heritage podcast on the EMP threat. Their estimates are of a 10% survival rate from a successful attack. That's a 90% death rate, not "a few million". Our society is incredibly dependent on computers and electricity.

Posted by: Brett_McS at November 24, 2008 3:09 AM

This article is timely, and a very, very good exposure of the peril. The best treatment, with the space for a little more depth, that I've seen is a chapter in a book called "I.T. Wars: Managing the Business-Technology Weave in the New Millennium." Please don't remove this post as a solicitation - go to your public library and check out the book (I checked out mine at the Fairfax Public Library, VA). Read the Chapter "What's At Stake - the 4-1-1- on 9/11, Katrina and Beyond." The author uses 9/11 and post-Katrina New Orleans to discuss large-scale terror and natural disaster, respectively, and those impacts to conduct of business at the local level, and for the country at-large. A great in-depth analysis of Electro-magnetic Pulse (EMP), as delivered by a nuclear warhead is presented, along with examination of our government's position. That chapter (the last in the book) should be required reading in business schools, as well as for federal and local officials. If you don't want to hunt the book down, see this great exposure (especially the last few questions and answers, although not quite as expository as the book itself): HERE

Posted by: John Franks at November 24, 2008 6:32 AM

If one thinks they're being held "hostage to events," there's only one thing to do:

Start taking hostages of your own or, better yet, make everyone hostages to each other.

Ergo, simply make the following announcement:

"If, or when, we're hit with a nuclear weapon, it won't matter who was actually responsible because we're going to exterminate anybody and everybody we even remotely think was connected with the attack. In short, if we're hit you can all bend over and kiss your arses goodbye."

Posted by: MarkJ at November 24, 2008 8:17 AM

The EMP threat is serious but requires a foe capable of launching a nuclear warhead several hundred miles over the U.S. The more likely threat raised by this article is a ship-based attack with cruise missiles, which are easy to manufacture and transport. These could putter along a few feet above the ground and carry a nuke into one of our coastal cities. Such an attack is much more feasible for a terrorist group to pull off.

Posted by: Jonathan at November 25, 2008 2:07 PM