EMP Attack Concern Drives Pentagon to Reopen Cheyenne Mountain

The Pentagon has decided to reopen the Cheyenne Mountain Air Defense facility, which housed the heart of America’s air and missile defense of North America. The facility had been mothballed in a “cost-saving” move in 2006.

Last week, Admiral William Gortney, head of US NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) and US Northern Command, reversed that decision and announced the Pentagon was spending an opening ante of $700 million to oversee reactivation of the Cheyenne mountain-embedded facility. The reason – the Pentagon’s fears of a nuclear Electro-Magnetic Pulse (EMP) attack by a missile that would burn out America’s overly-dependent defense, which is based on modern electronics.

The article doesn’t say what has changed since 2006. After all, the danger of EMP has been recognized within the military for decades. I see four possibilities. One is the increased likelihood of attack by North Korea, Iran, and other unstable third world powers. Another is the proliferation of super-EMP weapon technology to North Korea and possibly to other such powers. Another is the growing susceptibility of modern military electronics to EMP. Another is a realization by the military of its dependence on the civilian infrastructure.

Ensuring the ability of the US to retaliate is important in forestalling attacks by rational leaders of such countries as China and Russia. It is less effective in deterring aggression by unstable dictators, unidentifiable terrorists, and Arabs with a death wish.

Missile Defense

The September 6th edition of The Economist included an article titled The Unsheltering Sky which evaluated the prospects of missile defense of the US from nuclear attack. The article concluded that such prospects look “doomed.”

Though the article is well-written, it seems to me that the danger is great enough to justify great expense. Putting up space-based orbital interceptors would be a fairly effective way to neutralize a small-scale attack, and such a system would protect the entire world, not just the US. It would have to be paired with a satellite inspection system to ensure that no one would hide a nuclear weapon inside a non-military satellite. Also, such a system could be overwhelmed by multiple weapons or sophisticated evasion or decoy systems. Nevertheless, though it wouldn’t be foolproof, I think it would be worth the cost. After the first use of nuclear weapons to mount an EMP attack, there is likely to be enough political capital to make this investment. Let’s just hope we are not the target of that first attack.

Book Review: EMP – Protect Family, Homes, and Community

This book by Don White and Jerry Emanuelson attempts to provide technical guidance to those who would like to protect their homes from the destructive effects of a nuclear electromagnetic pulse attack. Both authors are electrical engineers, and so are better equipped than most to understand the EMP publications released by the US military.

Yet the critical technical details are often elusive. The book emphasizes the importance of solar photoelectric systems, but the authors have not quite located a protective mesh for the face of solar panels which screens out an EMP yet admits light. A supplement at  http://www.futurescience.com/emp/AppendixD.html suggests stainless steel mesh, but adds that it doesn’t fully protect the panels from EMP and is likely to create a corrosion problem where it joins the aluminum frame. Until these details are worked out, the best solution may be to keep the panels and other vulnerable system components in a Faraday cage until after the EMP has done its damage, then pull them out and assemble them. The same could be done with spares for the vulnerable components of other critical electrical appliances.

The subtitle of the book is “Using Shielded Solar Rooftops and Shielded Rooms and Buildings to Protect our Modern Lifestyle.” Yet aside from us fleeing the country, I see no way to protect our modern lifestyle if an EMP hits us. A more reasonable goal is simply to survive, and to do that, we need to focus on meeting our most basic needs instead of worrying about whether our automated clothes washer works.

That said, you have to admire anyone who even attempts to tackle the problems posed by an EMP attack.

UPDATE – A reader points out that page 155 of the book lists companies that supply protective mesh for solar hardening.

Just Sail Away

Someone who lives on the coast could own a boat and simply sail away to a foreign land if an EMP disaster strikes.

One of the hardest parts could be getting to the boat before thieves hijacked it. If you were lucky, you would have a brief period of opportunity before thieves realized (along with everyone else) the severity of the crisis, but I think that period could be short – perhaps a few hours. Security people at a marina would likely desert their post if they realized the seriousness of the disaster, and they are not equipped to do much more than call the police in any case. I suppose one thing you could do is lock the wheel or disable the motor when you are not aboard (e.g., remove and hide some electrical cabling). You could also put up an “Out of service for repairs” sign so a thief would steal a different boat.

The safest thing would be to live on the boat, or to have it docked right outside or near your house. If some of the crew was there and some wasn’t, it might be necessary to leave the dock and let the remainder of the crew row out to you, or even swim out. For crew members living far away, you might have a pickup point and time prearranged, perhaps at night somewhere far from any marina.

Another danger of sailing off in your own boat is piracy. You would want your boat to be well armed (and armored in places?). It would be impossible to outrun a fast pirate motorboat , even with a motor yacht, most of which have a range of only a few hundred miles and so could not get you to Europe or S. America anyway. In desperate times you would have to keep a watch day and night, and never take the boat out with fewer than two crew members aboard (one to steer and one to repel boarders).

Your destination would be an area not directly affected by the EMP, ideally one that is both civilized and does not import much of its food from the US. You could bring gold with you in your boat, and it might be good to have gold stashed in a bank at your destination as well. South America and Europe are possibilities.

This is only a solution for small numbers of people, since only super yachts are designed for more than eight on board.

Protecting the Grid is Not Enough

It would be comforting to believe that if the government began a program to harden our critical infrastructures, that would solve all our problems. Yet it would take years before such hardening was complete, and meanwhile, we would be vulnerable. Actually, even after that we would be vulnerable. An EMP attack would destroy all the computers and control systems that produce our food and allow our banks to function. Home appliances would not work, even if there was power available. Companies could not operate, and would close. Everyone would be out of work. Communications would be down, and there would be massive confusion.

For this reason, it is necessary to harden critical infrastructures AND to build up inventories of food and critical electrical components. Better yet, work towards communications and control technologies which are highly resistant to EMP. Fiber optics should be used for all critical communications and to power control equipment (via photovoltaic cells) which is enclosed in Faraday cages. If your washing machine stops working, you can wash by hand. If your well pump or your neighbor’s farm equipment stops working, that’s a serious problem.

North Korea Orbits Satellite

North Korea recently launched a satellite into polar orbit, demonstrating its capability to send payloads anywhere on Earth. The question now is whether they have managed to reduce the size of their nuclear weapons to what their rockets can handle. If so, they are able to threaten anyone anywhere.

What the newspapers fail to mention is that a satellite may itself be a nuclear weapon, patiently waiting for the signal to detonate when it passes over its target. It wouldn’t even have to leave orbit if it were used as a HEMP (high altitude nuclear electromagnetic pulse) weapon. No one would know that the satellite was not just for weather or communications, so there would be no warning at all before a country’s electronics were fried.

On the other hand, when the satellite exploded, our military would know it was the one launched by North Korea, and that nation would be punished. They must realize that, so we can hope that this will restrain them from using a satellite this way.

EMP vs. Nuclear Blast Effects

Welcome to EMP Blog, where I hope to help foster the growth of a community of people with common concerns. The format will be informal, and my assumption is that people who find their way here will already know something about the EMP hazard. If you do not, explore some of the links from this page, or do your own web search.

How is the threat of an EMP any worse than the threat of nuclear war as it was previously imagined? I can think of four reasons to think so. First, one can always hope to escape the lethal effects of nuclear weapons, if it is just a matter of blast effects. The Soviets might not waste bombs on a state like Oregon, where I live. Yet an electromagnetic pulse could strike the entire country. It is much more likely you would be affected than it used to be.

A second reason is that a poor country such as North Korea, Iran, or Pakistan was unlikely to be much of a threat to the US as a whole, since it couldn’t have many nuclear weapons. Now, one EMP blast outside the atmosphere could wreck the whole country. Since there are many small countries and terrorist groups that dislike the US, this makes an attack much more likely than it used to be. Adding to this increased likelihood is the fact that the Soviets knew that after a first strike, they would suffer a counterattack. In contrast, it is likely that an EMP attack would be by an unknown actor, so the punishment for a first strike no longer exists.

A third reason is that a nuclear war as conventionally conceived kills quickly, whereas an EMP kills primarily by starvation. So instead of dying in a blast, you are likely to suffer for a long time and perhaps be killed by your next door neighbor. Instead of neighbors helping one another and sharing canned food left behind by the many who are dead, you are left with the same amount of food but many more hungry people. With an EMP, you have reason not to cooperate with your neighbor.

In an EMP attack, all the millions of people from cities will erupt into the countryside, stripping the seed bins that are needed to plant the next crop. This ends up killing even the farmers, who might have survived a conventional nuclear war. So a fourth reason is that whereas a conventional nuclear war might kill 70% of the population, an EMP attack might kill 90%.

So an EMP is worse than a conventional nuclear war because it is more likely both to occur and to kill you if it does. Moreover, it sets people against one another, so our traditional strength as a species – teamwork – is subverted. In fact, teamwork of the wrong sort could kill even more, if for example inadequate food is evenly divided among everyone. It reminds me of the way Native Americans dealt with disease; they gathered around the sick person’s bed, showing support but unfortunately condemning themselves to the same disease.

It is always dangerous to avoid facing reality, and I fear we as a country may have already gone beyond saving. If tomorrow we decide to harden our infrastructure, it would take years to actually do so, and our enemies could easily take us out before we are ready.