Eid-ul-Fitr, the Muslim holiday celebrating the end of Ramadan, was an appropriate setting for a panel discussion today on the threat of an Electromagnetic Pulse, or EMP, attack on the United States.
The live event, hosted by Florida-based The United West, was held to raise awareness of the looming threat.
The warning presented was startling: A crude nuclear device placed on top of a 50-year-old SCUD missile and launched by a tramp steamer could cause the collective collapse of the nation’s power grid in a matter of minutes.
It is estimated that Iran could launched such an attack in just a few years, and it would leave the U.S. essentially in the “Stone Age.”
Tom Trento, founder of The United West, called an EMP attack the equivalent of an “Electronic Armageddon.”
Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and its supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, both believe that the coming of the last Islamic messiah, the Shiites’ 12th Imam Mahdi, is near and that Iran is called upon to bring about his arrival.
They believe Iran must lead the way for a worldwide Islamic revolution. Leaders in the Iranian government have stated that the Islamic revolution is moving forward, advanced by the Arab Spring, and will reach the shores of America for an eventual takeover.
Intelligence sources have indicated Iran is within two years of bringing the revolution to the United States in the form of an EMP attack.
Ambassador R. James Woolsey, former director of the CIA during the Clinton administration, told the conference that an Iranian nuclear attack would not have to be sophisticated or complicated. He cited the estimated damage from a crude device mounted atop a SCUD and launched from somewhere near the U.S. shores.
The missile “need not be accurate, it just needs altitude” to be successful. He went on to say that the effects of EMP are known, because the nation already has experienced them.
“Starfish Prime” was a high-altitude nuclear test conducted by the U.S. on July 9, 1962, before the 1963 Nuclear Test Ban treaty banned nuclear weapons testing in the atmosphere.
A two megaton nuclear device approximately 100 times the power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima was launched via a Thor rocket and exploded 250 miles above a point 19 miles southwest of Johnston Island in the Pacific Ocean.
The results included surprises and raised still-unanswered questions.
William Graham, another member of the panel, said the EMP was 100 times larger than predicted and no one understood why.
Sophisticated electronic equipment on the island of Oahu, almost 900 miles away, was severely damaged, but vacuum-tube based devices were unharmed. Over 300 streetlights stopped working, burglar alarms were activated and one telephone company’s microwave link was destroyed.
“The street lights on Ferdinand Street in Manoa and Kawainui Street in Kailua went out at the instant the bomb went off, according to several persons who called police last night,” as reported July 9, 1962, in the Honolulu Advertiser.
The same article reported that a brilliant flash turned Hawaii’s night into day, with the “spectacular pyrotechnic aftermath” lasting seven minutes.
“It was like turning on all the lights all over the Hawaiian Islands for a super-super athletic contest.”
A city-county streetlight department official in Honolulu also attributed blown circuit fuses in nine areas to the energy released from the bomb.
Today’s worldwide nuclear arsenal is much more powerful.
According to the Brookings Institution, nuclear bombs have been constructed that range in size of 0.02 megatons to 15 megatons, seven times larger than the Starfish Prime warhead.
Iran would not need anything nearly as large as a 15 megaton bomb to destroy the U.S. infrastructure. A nuclear device built using 1940s technology would suffice. Iran’s nuclear program is already capable of building such a device.
Woolsey said, “All this discussion about whether [the Iranians] have a (nuclear) program ignores the fact that in enriching uranium up to 20 percent (purity), you have done 85-90 percent of the work you need.”
He went on to note that when Iranians say they are not interested in nuclear weapons, they are “lying through their teeth.”
With a nuclear device in hand, either produced locally or purchased from North Korea, all Iran would need is a delivery system.
As Woolsey noted, a SCUD would do the job.
Since an EMP only affects electronics within its line of sight, the higher the detonation, the larger the affected area. A device detonated 100 miles over Indianapolis would put 70 percent of the population of the United States in the dark.
Such a missile could be launched from a fishing boat off the East Coast.
The Aegis missile system is designed to only fire at a target at mid-course or in its terminal, or reentry, phase.
Woolsey claims President Obama has made it harder to design the missile system to strike targets in the ascent phase due to promises he has made to the Soviet Union.
Graham, a member of the Department of Defense’s Defense Science Board and President Reagan’ science adviser, saw firsthand the effects of an EMP on critical infrastructure.
In 1962, Graham went on active duty to look at the data generated from the last of the above-ground nuclear tests. He concluded that an “EMP super-weapon” would not need to generate a large blast. It could be a small weapon that would effectively neutralize conventional forces.
He concluded that an EMP attack would result in “Government by Disaster.”
At the conference, Fritz Ermarth, former chairman of the National Intelligence Council, said EMP has changed the face of modern warfare.
“While the Cold War strategy of blasting cities is still in portfolio,” EMP is getting new emphasis. A major advantage they have is that they are cheap and easy to produce. He went on to say that because of its lack of preparation, the United States is way behind in terms of defense against an EMP threat.
He claims that the U.S. is “tremendously vulnerable to catastrophic blackmail.”
Ermarth painted the following scenario: President Ahmadinejad calls the United States president and says Iran has enough nuclear material to make several bombs and they have deployed them in ships and trucks around the country. He then goes on to say that Iran intends to destroy Israel and then invade Saudi Arabia. He threatens the American president that if the United States responds, Iran will launch its missiles. Ahmadinejad claims that at least two or three missiles will get through.
Even without a demonstration, Iran’s threat has to be taken seriously, he said.
The president would ask his advisers, “Is it a plausible threat?” To which the advisers would have to say “yes,” given the state of Iran’s nuclear enrichment program and access to ballistic delivery systems.
This would also hold true for any bioweapon which could be transmitted by air.
“What do you think the U.S. will do?”
Ermarth concluded his remarks by saying, “Don’t discount coercion and blackmail as a weapon.”
Ambassador Henry F. Cooper, director of the Department of Defense’s Strategic Defense Initiative Organization under President Reagan, concluded his own remarks by saying that EMP is an “existential problem,” and it is “ludicrous that our representatives are not providing comprehensive defenses that are needed.”