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EMP Attack

September 23rd, 2010 by Myrhaf · 16 Comments · Uncategorized

The pieces on the internet about a possible electromagnetic pulse attack read like science fiction. It’s TEOTWAWKI stuff (The End Of The World As We Know It). These doomsday scenarios raise questions that I’ll get to later.

The attack would be a nuclear missile that exploded not on a city but in the atmosphere above the USA. It would cause an electromagnetic pulse that knocked out everything electronic, with micro chips being also vulnerable, in the line of sight of the explosion.


A blast 300 miles up would knock out electricity in most of North America.

The result would be catastrophic. America’s 300 million cannot survive long without electricity.

A 2004 Congressional Study projected a stunning 90% fatality rate from such an attack… it would cause an almost immediate shortage of potable water, food and medical supplies, and eventually lead to a economic and societal collapse.

90% is decimation — only one in 10 would survive. 300 million people would be reduced to 30 million.

Life after an EMP attack “would probably be something that you might imagine life to be like around the late 1800s but with several times the population we had in those days, and without the ability of the country to support and sustain all those people,” Graham says. “They wouldn’t have power. Food supplies would be greatly taken out by the lack of transportation, telecommunication, power for refrigeration and so on.”

Yet life would be far more primitive than even that because in the 1800s, Americans had food from their own farms and police who rode on horseback.

Just one week without electricity would be the worst disaster America has ever seen. One week in which all production stops would plunge us into a depression.

Imagine hundreds of millions of starving people. It would be madness, especially in the inner cities. Roving gangs, looting, arson — it would be the dark ages: rape, pillage and burn.

With the decimation of America, we’re talking about the worst disaster since the Black Plague or maybe since the 410 a.d. sack of Rome. Certainly the entire world order would change as every country that had been restrained by the threat of American power made its move. Some countries might even be emboldened to invade North America.

Is an attack likely? Consider that Iran has been testing just such an attack:

Iran surprised intelligence analysts by describing the mid-flight detonations of missiles fired from ships on the Caspian Sea as “successful” tests. Even primitive Scud missiles could be used for this purpose. And top U.S. intelligence officials reminded members of Congress that there is a glut of these missiles on the world market. They are currently being bought and sold for about $100,000 apiece.

Stratfor disagrees.

In order to have the best chance of causing the type of immediate and certain EMP damage to the United States on a continent-wide scale, as discussed in many media reports, a nuclear weapon (probably in the megaton range) would need to be detonated well above 30 kilometers somewhere over the American Midwest. Modern commercial aircraft cruise at a third of this altitude. Only the United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia and China possess both the mature warhead design and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capability to conduct such an attack from their own territory, and these same countries have possessed that capability for decades. (Shorter range missiles can achieve this altitude, but the center of the United States is still 1,000 kilometers from the Eastern Seaboard and more than 3,000 kilometers from the Western Seaboard — so just any old Scud missile won’t do.)

The Stratfor report holds that the MAD (mutually assured destruction) doctrine keeps us safe:

…for the countries capable of carrying out a HEMP attack, the principles of nuclear deterrence and the threat of a full-scale retaliatory strike continue to hold and govern, just as they did during the most tension-filled days of the Cold War.

This disaster can be averted at a modest cost.

“The key for our electric power grid are these big transformers,” Pry says. “All together, there are about 300 of them. They are absolutely indispensable to the operation of the power grid. If you fry those things, there are only a couple of countries in the world that sell them for export, and it takes a year, at least, to make one of them,” Pry says.

To harden those transformers against an attack would cost a mere $200 million to $400 million, Pry says. For perhaps $20 billion, the entire power grid could be protected, Pry says. By comparison, the stimulus bill costs nearly $800 billion. Yet without electricity, no one would have a job.

If the government has not “hardened” the big transformers and the rest of the power grid, it should do so fast. Should such an attack destroy an unprepared America, history will be less kind to Obama, Bush and Clinton than it is to Hoover.

Various Chinese generals have made statements through the years about defeating America. Could their confidence rest on an EMP attack as part of their strategic plans? I wouldn’t rely on MAD with a country that is willing to sacrifice hundreds of millions of its people to defeat America.

Another thing that worries me is that this scenario is what the most consistent environmentalists want: a decimation of population. Could those radical environmentalists be in positions of power, capable of stopping defensive measures with bureaucratic red tape?

The thing I find hardest to believe in all these scenarios is that it would take a year to get America electrified again. A whole year? When the infrastructure is in place and merely needs to be replaced? Yes, government can be maddeningly inefficient, but a nationwide catastrophe would evoke a commensurate urgency to fix the problem. I believe the American “can do” attitude would bring out the best in us.

But if it took even a month to restore energy, tens of millions could die, and the world would never be the same again. Preventing this catastrophe should be a priority.

16 Comments so far ↓

  • rob sama

    You mean 300 million, not billion.

  • Myrhaf

    Thanks, Rob. I must be used to thinking in federal budget numbers.

  • Inspector

    I’ve known about this for years – I’m fairly sure I cited it in at least one call to terminate the Iranian threat before they launch just such a strike. They and North Korea have already been testing methods of placing missiles aboard big box cargo transport ships such that we wouldn’t even be able to tell who did it. Heck, the Russians could launch an attack like this in that way and blame it on either of the former, laughing all the way.

    I think the lesson here is that the sun is rapidly setting on the idea that we can simply leave hostile states (and groups) alone.

  • Myrhaf

    I agree, Inspector. The tragic thing is that it will take a catastrophic attack to convince the pragmatists that there is anything to worry about.

  • Embedded I

    I used to understand that after the pulse passed, most electronics would return to normal. Not so with modern circuitry. Your toaster would be fine, but even your well pump may not be unless it is very strictly a coil motor with mechanical pressure sensors only.

    How Stuff Works has a 5 minute read on EMPs. Along side their article (on each page) is a 3 min. video. It shows the EMP impact on a model electric helicopter and on a modern car.

    This certainly makes me an advocate of mini~ and micro~nuclear power stations, and of proper shielding techniques.

    Duncan Long discusses shielding methods, Faraday Boxes (a reason why airplanes & cars do not suffer from lightning strikes), special grounding circuitry & more.

  • L-C

    “…it will take a catastrophic attack to convince the pragmatists that there is anything to worry about.”

    That is, the necessary stimulus to make them act lies beyond an event horizon of sorts, comparable to someone who starts considering a CCW only when they’re dying in the gutter, having been shot by a mugger.

    Regarding Stratfor’s statements, here are a few quotes from the Wikipedia article (with sources) that also hosts the picture featured in the OP:

    “…weapons with yields of 10 kilotons (42 TJ) or less can produce a very large EMP”

    “Thermonuclear weapons are also less efficient at producing EMP because the first stage can pre-ionize the air which becomes conductive and hence rapidly shorts out the electron Compton currents generated by the final, larger yield thermonuclear stage. Hence, small pure fission weapons with thin cases are far more efficient at causing EMP than most megaton bombs.

    This analysis, however, only applies to the fast E1 and E2 components of nuclear EMP. The geomagnetic storm-like E3 component of nuclear EMP is more closely proportional to the total energy yield of the weapon.”

    Depending on how true this is and how it translates to the actual effects of a detonation, it could mean that even the most easily designed, constructed and acquired weapon types would be capable of causing cataclysmic destruction.

  • dismuke

    “For perhaps $20 billion, the entire power grid could be protected, Pry says. By comparison, the stimulus bill costs nearly $800 billion. Yet without electricity, no one would have a job.

    And that $20 billion would probably result in work that creates more actual jobs than the $800 billion did. But they wouldn’t necessarily be UAW or SEIU jobs – and those are what matters most. After all, we have to keep our priorities in order.

  • Roxanne A.

    I forwarded this article on EMP to friends, one of whom is an engineer. I thought his reply was worth posting, and I have his permission to post it.

    Original Message —–
    From: [email address removed]
    Sent: Friday, September 24, 2010 3:25 PM
    Subject: Re: EMP Attack

    Hate to tell you all, but this stuff is utter nonsense. True conspiracy theory stuff.

    EMP can damage electronics in the vicinity of a nuclear blast, but deaths are purely blast related. Also, zone of “total destruction” goes down roughly as fifth power of the radius. So…. a 20 megaton warhead may be 1000 times more energy than the blast at Hiroshima, but the radius of total destruction is root(fifth power) of 1000 = 4 times greater. Just double checked (I was recalling a figure I read from 1970) and confirmed.
    This is one reason why the U.S. went to very small warheads (20Mtons): they couldn’t make accurate missiles.

    What EMP does is create a strong ElectroMagnetic Pulse that induces an electric voltage in electrical circuits that have long wires in them (inches). Most circuits are designed to tolerate 2000V and have protection circuitry to achieve this, and though the internal circuits of a microchip aren’t protected except at the inputs and outputs, the lengths are very short — microns to a millimeter or so. Very, very hard to induce more than a few volts on such a small wire. The electrical energy induced will decrease with distance from a blast, maybe as much as that fifth power formula, but at least as the square of the distance. There’s just no way for a single blast to destroy all electronics more than some tens of miles away. The energy that can couple into the circuits is just too damned small.

  • Myrhaf

    I’m glad to read this. I wish there were more information like this on the internet. Did the 2004 Congressional Study not consult engineers?

  • Andrew Dalton

    Here is another post (with links to sources) claiming that many of the purported effects of a nuclear-generated EMP — particularly the notion that cars, radios, and other small electronic devices would be destroyed — are unfounded.

  • Jim May

    One of the tech ideas I had in a sci-fi novel I was writing in my twenties was the idea of directional EMP, which could selectively fry the electronics in particular targets.

    That notwithstanding, I concur with Roxanne’s source. About the only thing in the countermeasures that might be worth doing, is the “hardening” of the big transformers by installing certain ground resistors — because that also defends against the effects of massive solar flares, which are a definite bigger issue that EMP.

    At worst, EMP and allied tactics could make hash of communications for a while and fry some electronics, but not much more than that. Some pretty technical descriptions of how that would work can be found in “Footfall” by Niven and Pournelle.

  • Myrhaf

    If EMP depends on long conductors to be effective, then I would guess the power grid is vulnerable. I hope measures have been taken to protect it.

    I’m really glad the threat not as bad as advertised on the internet. Nothing would delight me more than for our enemies to put their resources into a weapon that doesn’t work. I thought the same thing back in the early ’80s when I heard the Soviets were working on paranormal weaponry such as telekinesis and ESP.

  • Inspector

    Well that is good to hear. Of course, cargo ships and conventional nuclear attacks are still plenty of reason not to tolerate certain enemies’ continued existence.

  • Roxanne A.

    The mystery engineer comments:

    For May: The military has anticipated him. They have directed energy microwave weapons now that do exactly what he describes.

    For Myrhaf:
    1.) the power grid is somewhat vulnerable because of long lines, but I suspect too hard to put enough energy on a power line. You’d have to exceed the load capacity of the line — a line that normally operates at between 60,000 to 1 million volts with hundreds of thousands of amps.
    2.) I’ve wondered for some time if the EMP “threat” is purely psyops for our enemies.

  • Jim May

    For Roxanne’s engineer:

    If they built those microwave devices after 1989, I anticipated them 🙂 Also, mine were satellite-based rather than vehicle-based for portable. E-Death from above.

    I also doubt that EMP was/is psyops. Ordinary cultural tendencies towards sensationalism is sufficient to explain it. Of course, making use of that could be psyops.

    My favorite psyops conspiracy theory remains: when the government wants to steer mainstream attention away from something, create a conspiracy theory about it, complete with manufactured crazies, until genuine ones take over. This effectively deflects any serious inquiry from that topic for fear of being associated with kooks!

  • Roxanne A.

    Roxanne’s engineers’ response to Jim May, et al:

    EMP is very real. It will destroy electronics in a certain radius from a nuke explosion. What isn’t real is the magnitude of the destruction caused by it that the conspiracy theorists claim. I meant that the exaggerated claims of destructive effect could be psyops to delude an enemy into pursuing atomic EMP as a means of keeping them from using atomic weapons to destroy cities the old fashioned way. If you are a very small nuclear power like Iran, and you’ve got exactly 1 bomb, you’d want the most bang for buck, and if you were dumb enough to think EMP was the means to that end, it could save a major American city. That’s the speculation.

    One of the reasons anti-ballistic missiles were abandoned in the 1970’s was that they used nuclear weapons to knock out ICBMs. The problem with this is that the defense can wipe out your own electronic systems, especially your radars that you need to track incoming missiles. And it can wipe out your own the radars/comm of fighter-inteceptors needed to take out Russian bombers — at least, if they aren’t far enough away from the blast. But usually, these fighters were based in the same region (I used to be stationed in both North Dakota at a big SAC base that also managed our ICBMs and our ABM!)

    EMP is only half the problem with nukes. If you detonate a nuclear weapon in the atmosphere to defend against Russian ICBMs, it also leaves a high-energy plasma in the atmosphere that effectively shorts out your radar signals and blocks them. You get no information of further incoming missiles for some time. Not sure how long, but I expect on the order of 1/2 hour or more. Meanwhile, Russian missiles keep coming in. You’re screwed. From a civilian perspective, all radio communications would cease for some time as well. You can’t talk to your own bombers or fighters (in the 1970s — today we have satellite communications, etc.) This is all a bit simplified, but that’s the essence.