We urgently need effective ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems to protect Americans from an existential electromagnetic pulse (EMP) threat posed by a nuclear explosion high in or above the atmosphere.
We know from authoritative sources that such an attack would shut down our unhardened electric power grid for an indefinite period. Without electricity, most Americans would die within months from starvation, disease, and societal collapse that would inevitably follow without just-in-time delivery of food and other vital goods.
This threat can be delivered by Russia, China, North Korea and probably Iran — and possibly terrorists who gain nuclear weapons (by hook or crook) and use Scuds costing a few million dollars to launch such an attack from off-shore vessels.
That Russia and China pose this threat is well known; less so is the threat from the other three potential sources.
Nevertheless, the Congressional EMP Commission learned from Russian generals fifteen years ago that how to build low-yield “Super EMP” nuclear weapons was passed to North Korea — and Iranian scientists have reportedly attended and/or observed North Korea’s low yield nuclear tests.
Thus, North Korea and Iran both pose an EMP threat to the American people — and they (or Russia or China) could hire terrorists to launch such an attack from vessels off our coasts. Our defense is poor at best against this threat, which may well now exist.
Iran conducted a possible “dry run” test from a vessel in the Caspian Sea in the late 1990s, has many proven ballistic missiles, and could be armed with nuclear weapons derived from their long standing cooperation with their ally North Korea that has several tens of nuclear weapons.
In June 2013, two SA-2 nuclear capable missiles (developed by the Soviet Union in the 1960s) that could be used in an EMP attack were discovered under tons of sugar on a North Korean vessel after passing through the Panama Canal, headed to Cuba.
Bear in mind that in late 2017, North Korean leaders stated that obtaining an EMP attack capability is their “strategic goal.”
Meanwhile, congress disbanded the EMP Commission after its service for 17 years; and Washington continues to procrastinate on programs to counter this well-known threat.
Department of Defense (DoD) experts, who served on that now disbanded commission, worked a half century ago to harden against EMP our strategic systems (international ballistic missiles (ICBMs), sea launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and strategic bombers — and critically important command, control, and communications systems that enable the president and our military commanders to retaliate if we are attacked.
EMP hardening was, and is, needed to deter or defeat such a threat. But we have not protected our critical civil infrastructure upon which our citizens depend for essential support. And, beginning in the early 1990’s, the DoD reduced support to maintain key technologists and associated Defense Nuclear Agency (DNA) activities that had previously retained that basic knowledge and competence.
So, while we once understood how to harden our critical civil infrastructure, our leaders have been delinquent even in maintaining that competence.
Moreover, our representatives and senators exacerbated this deficient condition by disbanding the EMP Commission that had long warned Americans and recommended effective responses — so far mostly ignored by the “powers that be.”
Instead, they decided to start over with a younger, less informed and less competent commission, while deferring any effective response, based on well-known technology, to protect Americans against the EMP threat.
So, a resistant federal bureaucracy is trying to stonewall, dissemble, and delay to block progress in dealing with this important existential threat. It likely will be some time before the “powers that be” muddle their way to deal effectively with this existential threat to all Americans under the best of conditions.
Hopefully, President Trump will shortly sign an Executive Order to expedite a needed reversal of these conditions by directing the currently dysfunctional federal government’s departments and agencies to get their act together, under the direction of the President’s National Security Advisor.
But it will take time, under the best of conditions, to harden most of the nation’s electric grid against such an attack.
Given these conditions, we should rapidly build the best possible BMD systems to protect Americans against such threats that could be launched from practically any location on the surface of the earth.
For example, we can quickly protect against North Korean ICBMs early in their flight with defensive interceptors launched from nearby aircraft — either fighter aircraft or unpiloted air vehicles (UAVs). Later in their flight, North Korean ICBMs launched northward can be intercepted by our existing ground and sea-based BMD systems, if they are prepared to do so.
Intercepting Iranian ballistic missiles nearby from the air is a bit more problematic because of geographic constraints. Our ground based interceptors could intercept most of Iran’s ICBMs later in their flight as they approach the U.S. from the north.
But both North Korea and Iran launch satellites southward to approach the U.S. from the south, and we have been ill prepared to intercept them. They could carry nuclear weapons to be detonated over the United States to produce the existential EMP threat.
Either state or their terrorist surrogates could launch ballistic missiles from vessels off our mostly undefended coasts, especially from the Gulf of Mexico.
We have left ourselves mostly unprepared to deal with these threats, whatever we may think is needed to continue to deter larger scale nuclear attacks from Russia or China.
Given the uncertainties of identifying potential threat missile launch sites, the most effective BMD system would be based in space. Over 30 years ago, President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) leaders understood this necessity and approved a formal demonstration/validation (DemVal) program for the most consequential concept developed during the SDI era (1983-93).
Two contractor teams were selected in 1990 to accomplish this DemVal program to design 1000 “Brilliant Pebbles” space-based interceptors, judged by the Pentagon’s independent authorities to cost $10 billion dollars in 1988 dollars (inflates to $20 billion today) for development, deployment and 20 years of operations. With today’s technology, a more effective system should cost less.
That system was designed to destroy with high confidence all of a salvo attack involving up to 200 reentry vehicles, beginning in the “boost phase” of the ballistic missiles carrying those attacking warheads. Compare that with today’s BMD systems that have cost the American taxpayers many times that amount.
This system should be built within five years, would take care of the existential EMP threat launched from anywhere on earth, and could also be an early counter to the hypersonic threat from Russia and China.
Ambassador Henry F. (Hank) Cooper, Chairman of High Frontier and an acknowledged expert on strategic and space national security issues, was President Ronald Reagan's Chief Negotiator at the Geneva Defense and Space Talks with the Soviet Union and Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) Director during the George H.W. Bush administration. Previously, he served as the Assistant Director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, Deputy Assistant USAF Secretary and Science Advisor to the Air Force Weapons Laboratory. In the private sector he was Chairman of Applied Research Associates, a high technology company; member of the technical staff of Jaycor, R&D Associates and Bell Telephone Laboratories; a Senior Associate of the National Institute for Public Policy; and Visiting Fellow at the Heritage Foundation. He received B.S. and M.S. degrees from Clemson and a PhD from New York University, all in Mechanical Engineering. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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