Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

October 28, 2010

EMP and solar storms—a fine line between resilience and overreaction

Filed under: General Homeland Security,Radiological & Nuclear Threats,Risk Assessment — by Arnold Bogis on October 28, 2010

USA Today published a story this week regarding the threat of solar storms and Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) that highlighted an issue inherent in homeland security more broadly—how to walk the line between resilience and overreaction.

The piece summarizes the threat posed by both natural solar storms and EMP caused by high-altitude explosion of nuclear weapons.  If you are unfamiliar with either or both, the USA Today article provides accessible descriptions of both phenomena.

In the overreaction column:

Gingrich last year cited the EMP Commission report in warning, “One weapon of this kind that went off over Omaha would eliminate most of the electrical production in the United States.”

There are others with more measured analysis:

There are “some important reasons for concern,” says physicist Yousaf Butt of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass. “But there is also a lot of fluff.”

You would really need something the size of a Soviet H-bomb to have effects that cross many states,” Butt says.

The solar storm story is less political:

On March 9, 1989, the sun spat a million-mile-wide blast of high-temperature charged solar gas straight at the Earth. The “coronal mass ejection” struck the planet three days later, triggering a geomagnetic storm that made the northern lights visible in Texas. The storm also induced currents in Quebec’s power grid that knocked out power for 6 million people in Canada and the USA for at least nine hours.

The sensible mitigation effort in the face of EMPs, solar storms, or even cyber threats would be simple (if not cheap) steps to stockpile extra transformers and other hard-to-replace electrical grid-related equipment.

Unfortunately, the threat of an EMP attack often is used to further an agenda based on a radical expansion of missile defenses that would include the ability to intercept missiles fired from freighters off the U.S. coast.  In a Heritage Foundation Foundry blog posting regarding the same USA Today article, the author stretches credibility to make this case:

“For countries less dependent on modern technologies and electronics, including both rogue states like Iran and North Korea as well as stateless terrorist groups, EMP provides a potential way to attack the United States through asymmetric means. EMPs could be used to circumvent America’s superior conventional military power while reducing vulnerability to retaliation in kind.”

The author of this particular quotation, Heritage analyst Jena Baker McNeil, seems to misunderstand the basics of deterrence.  It is certain that the U.S. would not retaliate to an EMP attack with only an EMP attack.  So regardless of the level of dependence of the attacker on modern technologies, the nuclear retaliatory strike would be directed at destroying what the enemy regime holds most dear—the regime itself.  In other words, any nuclear strike on the United States (even a single EMP strike) by an identified state (and even an attempt at a somewhat covert EMP attack by a state would certainly be identified through a combination of nuclear forensics and intelligence) would result in an overwhelming nuclear response.

A discussion of the nuclear terrorist threat requires a separate post.  I would just like to suggest that while I worry about nuclear terrorism, and believe it is a threat requiring urgent action, the threat of terrorists obtaining not only a nuclear weapon but one capable of being combined with a SCUD (and of course obtaining the SCUD itself) is not something I believe should be keeping anyone up at night.

(H/t to Armchair Generalist for an earlier post regarding the USA Today piece.)

Further Reading:

Yousaf M. Butt, “The EMP threat: fact, fiction, and response (Part I),” The Space Review: http://www.thespacereview.com/article/1549/1

Yousaf M. Butt, “The EMP threat: fact, fiction, and response (Part II),” The Space Review: http://www.thespacereview.com/article/1553/1

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4 Comments »

Comment by William R. Cumming

October 29, 2010 @ 2:34 am

And of course both EMP and Nuclear Winter were not a studied factor in defense or deterrance circles pre-1980. Carl Sagan’s article in a 1983 Science magazine together with others brought home the fact that the nuclear weapons priesthood had overlooked a few basics.
As I understand it the next major Solar Storms are predicted for 2012. Perhaps disruption of the 2012 election vote? Ever factor in a major grid outage on Election Day?

Comment by Viagra

January 26, 2011 @ 11:25 am

Excellent site, keep it up the great work.

Comment by AmandaK

August 15, 2011 @ 3:35 pm

I’ve been looking more into this topic to get more information on it, so I can be better prepared for when we get hit with this. I know that Dr. Andrei Shoumikhin authored articled on ballistic missile defense and he knows about EMP. He’s been on this radio show before and had a ton to say. He’s actually going to be on it again next Wednesday the 17th, if you want to listen in on it this time, here’s the link: http://www.blogtalkradio.com/empact-radio/2011/08/17/pvp62-dr-andrei-shoumikhin-returns-to-empact-radio

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