New testimony before the House Armed Services Committee has raised fresh concerns about the possibility of an EMP attack on the United States. Experts say that recent missile tests by Iran, in which it detonated warheads at high altitudes, may be part of the development of an electromagnetic pulse (or EMP) weapon. Dr. William Graham, who heads up the committee to assess the threat of an EMP attack on the United States, testified before congress last week that such a scenario is the only plausible explanation for Iran's activities. Furthermore, Graham testified that Iranian military journals, translated by the CIA, "explicitly discuss a nuclear EMP attack that would gravely harm the United States."
An electromagnetic pulse is generated when a nuclear weapon is detonated high above the earth's surface (at altitudes between 40 and 400 kilometers). In such instances, the nuclear blast would interact with the Earth's atmosphere and magnetic field to produce an EMP. In addition to the direct effects of the blast, the EMP would impact electrical systems across a wide geographical area. The amount of damage depends primarily on the altitude of the blast and the size of the nuclear warhead. The US Defense Department recently awarded a 7.4 million dollar contract to a California based company to build an EMP generator so it can conduct small scale tests of our vulnerability to such attacks.
Our growing dependence upon computers and other electrical systems has made us especially vulnerable to an electromagnetic pulse attack. An EMP could cripple the U.S. by knocking out electrical power, telecommunications and transportation, along with banking and financial networks. The loss of power would also limit our access to fuel and emergency services, as well as food and water supplies. Systems could be down for weeks, months, or even years. It would be as if the United States slipped back into the 19th century - before the advent of cell phones, computers, microwaves and many of the other modern conveniences on which we now depend.
The existence of the electromagnetic pulse has been known since the 1940s, when nuclear weapons were being developed and tested. However, because of a lack of data, the effects of an EMP were not fully known until 1962. At this time, the United States was conducting a series of high-altitude atmospheric tests, code named "Operation Fishbowl," in the Pacific Proving Ground. On July 9, 1962, a test known as "Starfish Prime" was conducted near Johnston Island at an altitude of about 400 kilometers. This 1.4 megaton bomb caused an EMP that disrupted radio stations, destroyed street lights, shut down automobiles and wreaked havoc on electrical equipment throughout the Hawaiian Islands, some 1,400 kilometers away from the site of the blast! The explosion even disrupted radio equipment as far away as Australia. Consequently, in 1963, the United States and the Soviet Union signed the Atmospheric Test Ban Treaty to counter the considerable threat posed by EMPs.
Thomas C. Schelling, an economist and professor of foreign affairs, national security, nuclear strategy and arms control at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy, once wrote that we have "a tendency in our planning to confuse the unfamiliar with the improbable. The contingency we have not considered looks strange; what looks strange is therefore improbable; what seems improbable need not be considered seriously." Those words were written in regards to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. In that instance American forces were taken by surprise and the result was catastrophic. Have we learned from our mistake or is history destined to repeat itself? Will we once again be taken by surprise by our adversaries? To some, the threat of an EMP attack may seem improbable, but we would be foolish not to take it seriously.
• Weapons Proliferation - Strategic Trends
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• The EMP Threat - Wall Street Journal
• 7.4 Million Dollar Contract for an EMP Generator - DID