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Welcome to 1850: The Risk of EMP Attack

I am concerned about the PR aspects of the EMP attack risk communication over the last couple years. Awareness of the EMP risk has spread much faster among the right than any other portion of the political spectrum. This is already making it unfashionable among the educated left.

Given the year (2010), I currently think that EMP attack is the second greatest risk we face, right behind a genetically engineered superplague. A small EMP-optimized nuke launched from a container ship in the Gulf of Mexico could take out the power grid of the entire continental United States. The same thing could be done anywhere, like Europe or Japan.

The facts are available from the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack. No one cares except the Fox News crowd. It wasn't like this only a few years ago: EMP attack was primarily a topic limited to analysts and sci-fi TV show writers. Obama seems concerned about nukes in general (which presumably includes the EMP risk that emanates from them), but not many on the left share his concern. People are too busy worrying about global warming. The aging Henry Kissinger is not a good spokesman for the nuclear security movement.

If an EMP attack came, cars and trucks would just stop. Factories, controlled by computers, would stop. Molten steel on the assembly line would cool and solidify in place due to failure of the heating elements. The vast majority of tractors, combines, and other heavy machinery would become useless. Transformers and other electrical elements, large and small, would be fried. The largest transformers have to be ordered from China and are generally ordered with a year of lead time.

An effective EMP attack on the US would cause tens of trillions of dollars of damage. Cities would run out of food in a few days. The US grain stockpile only has about a million bushels of wheat. Wheat is the only common grain with enough nutrients to sustain someone on an all-grain diet. A bushel is only 60 pounds, and someone needs about a pound of wheat a day to avoid hunger pangs. Ideally two pounds if you are doing manual labor. 60 million man-days of food is not a lot. The population of the United States is 300 million. That means our grain stockpiles are enough food for everyone to eat a fifth of a pound and then they're gone.

The long-term prognosis will depend on how hard it will be to get crucial electronics for trucks and tractors in. If security collapses a few weeks after an EMP attack, foreign companies may be reluctant to do business here.

For a few tens of billions of dollars, we (the US) could shield our most important infrastructure from EMP attack. Our power grid is so naked and unprotected right now, we are practically asking to be nuked.

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  1. For EMP Doomsday to be a risk, there must be a group out there with the following:

    1. the capability to build a nuke small and rugged enough to fit on a ballistic missile and make it “EMP-optimised” – this is technology advanced enough that it requires the resources of a state

    2. suitable ballistic missile technology

    3. a desire to cause chaos in the US, triggering a massive global depression and wrecking everyone’s economies

    4. the willingness to risk nuclear retaliation given that the source of the attack could be traced using informers, or satellite imagery of the launch correlated with shipping records, or possibly the characteristics of the device. The one part of Western society that would function well after the EMP attack is the military.

    No state in the world has these things. North Korea and Iran don’t currently have the technology; I doubt India and Pakistan do either, and neither of those has the motivation; none of the remaining nuclear states with the technical capability to do the attack (which I make UK, France, Israel, China, Russia) would want to wreck a huge trading partner.

    To rank this as the “greatest risk” of 2010 seems crazy to me. Nobody who can presently do it would want to. You could make up a political scenario where tension between the US and Pakistan or China, or the technology level of Iran, might greatly increase in the next few decades. But if an aggressor state was considering a first strike, why would it limit its initial attack to a single EMP missile, while inviting a full nuclear attack in response?

    Do you think the risk of this happening in 2010 is greater than a natural disaster of equal scope?

  2. “To rank this as the “greatest risk” of 2010 seems crazy to me”: sorry, I know you ranked it as the “second greatest risk” – that still seems high to me.

  3. Another point I should add: you could argue that maybe there are states or groups who have secret nuclear/ballistics programmes which haven’t yet been detected. I think that’s very unlikely given the state of satellite imagery and the greater ease of information leaks nowadays.

    It certainly seems like Iran has been unable to keep its nuclear facilities secret from the West. Syria’s attempt to start a nuclear programme was detected by Israel and destroyed at an early stage; Burma’s incipient programme has also been detected. And this is all before the stage of an actual test, which you would definitely need to make an advanced warhead that could go on an ICBM.

  4. A single EMP weapon to disable an entire, continental country, like US? – maybe someday… but by now, this is sci-fi.

  5. Thanks for the points, Ben.

    The military would not function well after an EMP attack, as all systems that use electronics would be down.

    It’s hard to think of a natural disaster with a scope like this, except for geomagnetic storms.

    Yes, a state like Iran or North Korea.

    With 65 years since the last World War, we are slipping into a complacent mentality whereby it looks like another World War will never happen. Students of history know that intermittent war, not peace, is the default.

    What nuclear retaliation? With all crucial electronics fried, missiles would not be able to launch. Only submarine nuclear weapons would survive. Given that most of the military hardware of the country would be disabled, our country might be less than able to stage an effective counterattack. Simple surrender might be a more prudent option given how totally disabled we would be.

    There are plenty of people who would love to do extreme damage to the US. The same thing happens with all hegemons.

  6. All systems that use electronics? The military has known about EMP for decades? Don’t you think they might has hardened some things?

  7. Also, though things would no doubt be horrible, not everybody would starve. There are, for instance, many old trucks and too many deer. I feel you are doing what peak oil doomers often do and underestimating human ingenuity. It’s not 1850 if people know how to fabricate 1950’s technology

    You and I might not survive, but plenty of folk would.

  8. I’m pretty sure nuclear silos are EMP hardened. Plus, there are plenty of US bases and submarines which would be outside the effect area, and whatever communications procedures they have in place for nuclear war would presumably work after a single EMP.

  9. I don’t know, an EMP strike doesn’t seem likely to me. Clearly, nation states like Iran or North Korea would be afraid of retaliation and have nothing or little to gain. And terrorist groups tend to go after symbolic targets and like to think of their terrorist acts as noble deeds. Bombing US embassies and crashing airplanes into twin towers achieves this goal, but an EMP strike? I’m not saying it can never happen. We could see a scenario developing where the western world becomes so obsessed with consumerism that some environmental groups think of it as a noble deed to take out the whole US economy. But at the moment this doesn’t seem likely.

  10. I note an interesting lack of imagination in the responses so far. For example, “EMP attack seems awfully difficult”; “…people know how to fabricate 1950’s technology”; “…this is sci-fi”.

    Difficult? Iran’s Simorgh-3 booster will shortly launch their 220 pound Tolu satellite into a 310-mile orbit. Besides, difficult doesn’t mean impossible.

    We can just revert to 1050’s technology? Ignoring the problems of rebuilding an entire industrial base, the fact is that 1950’s technology will not feed or support 307 million people. Not that it would have to, since most of us would have long since starved to death.

    Unfortunately it’s not science fiction. Some may see a crippled America as a target; the initial attack may only be the first of many.

    The worst-case EMP would not be nuclear however; it would be solar. A large coronal mass ejection would have the same effect, but it it lasted for a long period – say, 24 hours – the entire Earth would be impacted. No one would be coming to our assistance.

  11. I’ve just finished Willam R. Forstchen’s 2009 post-apocalyptic novel ‘One Second After’, which outlines the consequences of an EMP attack on the United States (coincidentally, launched from a container ship in the Gulf of Mexico). It made for scary reading …

  12. Actually, I don’t know what kind of tech we would have and it’s probably cost effective to harden big transformers and other critical hard to replace infrastructure, but I am not convinced EMP would render everything broken. My guess would be some things would work and some things wouldn’t.

    My long term fears are wars which may or may not include surprising weapons. They aren’t really necessary, an AK-47 is enough to splatter my brains all over the trunk of my mimosa.

  13. The only thing that surprised me in the Michael’s article is the sentence:”Our power grid is so naked and unprotected right now, we are practically asking to be nuked.”I wonder what made you that paranoid. As an electronics engineer I’ve been studying on this subject nearly 2 years and I’m aware of what this weapon is capable of and not. An EMP weapon that is capable of disabling the whole electronics in the USA is only available in US’ own inventory. So if you ask me you can remain worried only from a giant blast on Sun’s surface. However, in my opinion EMP will be the decisive weapon of the future battlefields.

  14. Not very likely? How likely was 9-11? How likely is it that highly motivated Islamic terror cells can acquire not well controlled Soviet warheads? How likely is it that N. Korea or Iran already have functioning warheads? How likely is it that any of half a dozen nations would not hesitate to use these against the Great Satan? How likely is it that capable and reliable missile delivery systems have existed for a number of years by our enemies? And how likely is it that we would not ever know which nation or group sponsored or committed the attack and are consequently paralyed from carrying out any counterattack?

    I regretably suggest that these are all highly likely.

  15. Maybe if America changed it’s foreign diplomacy and stopped supporting the Israeli occupation of the West Bank we wouldn’t have so much trouble on our hands with Islamic nations in the world.

    It is a darn shame that most Americans remain oblivious to what is happening to the Palestinian people and how Israel is breaching human rights and America is supporting it in the UN!!!

    At the end of the day if you run a Nation in such a way that it relies on paranoia to solve solutions, such as pre-emptive strikes, you really only have a nation that is out of control with fearful fantasies and America is really has the weapons of mass destruction and is the only country that Uses them.

    Maybe we should ask ourselves do we really need all these bombs? Maybe we should start spending money on health care and the homeless and put an end to poverty.

    I think you forget how protected you really are.

    “Western civilisation holds a loaded gun at the head of the planet” – Terence McKenna.

  16. don’t get me wrong gfmucci i really am sorry about 9-11. but that was the only concrete effect of the terrorism on U.S’ side. and leaves others you counted as well as you called ‘likely’. the matter i want to point out is it’s nearly impossible to explode an emp bomb even over any furthest part of the U.S’ aerial space(and you can imagine how possible over washington). and ground based explosions are far less effective than air based ones. so if i wanted to hurt U.S i would blast it in the air which is impossible.(i hope i could explained what i mean.sorry for my bad english for it’s not my native language :)

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  18. An EMP attack will surely be devastating to the US. I am certain though that scenarios have been detailed and plans drawn up to respond to such. Who has this capability to do such an attack?

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  20. Is An Iranian EMP Attack & the First War to Save the Dollar In Our Future?  

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