A new congressional report contends that a North Korean electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack on the U.S. would ultimately wipe out 90 percent of the population.
To date, most discussion concerning the North Korean threat has been on whether the rogue state can accurately hit U.S. cities with its ICBMs. But in an EMP attack, such accuracy is not necessary because the pulse radius would be so large, says Peter Vincent Pry, who recently testified about the EMP threat before a congressional Homeland Security subcommittee. His conclusions are that such an EMP attack would wreak havoc across the whole of the continental U.S.
Unlike a conventional ICBM which launches and then goes into a suborbital flight before re-entering Earth’s atmosphere, an EMP warhead need not re-enter Earth’s atmosphere before exploding hundreds of kilometers above its target. Super-EMP weapons are designed to produce a high level of gamma rays, which generate the sort of high-frequency electromagnetic pulse that is most damaging to the broadest range of electronics, the report concludes.
And if the EMP device just happens to be part onboard an orbiting satellite, North Korea need only detonate the device remotely via encoded signal. Pry, Chief of Staff of the now de-funded Congressional EMP Commission, told me that at an altitude of 300 kilometers, the resulting electromagnetic pulse would affect all 48 contiguous states.
A warhead fused for an EMP in a satellite or ICBM could work on a timer, via GPS, or using an altimeter, says Pry, a nuclear strategist formerly with the CIA, who has a certificate in nuclear weapons design from the U.S. Air Force nuclear weapons lab. He says North Korea could even rig the warhead to detonate in the event that it was intercepted by our own missile defenses.
The consequences of such a detonation would be dire.
“The U.S. can sustain a population of 320 million people only because of modern technology,” said Pry. “An EMP that blacks-out the electric grid for a year would [decimate] the critical infrastructure necessary to support such a large population.”
In three days, the food supply in local grocery stores would be consumed and the 30-day national food supply in regional warehouses would begin to spoil, says Pry. In one year, he contends that up to 90 percent of the population could perish from starvation, disease, and societal collapse.
After generating gamma-rays that interact with air molecules in Earth’s stratosphere, a so-called fast pulse EMP field of tens of kilovolts would only last a few hundred nanoseconds.
But in the event of such an attack, aircraft electronics would be fried, as well as electronics in air traffic control towers, and navigation systems , says Pry. “Airliners would crash killing many of the 500,000 people flying over North America at any given moment,” he said.
Pry says electro-mechanical systems which regulate the flow of gas through pipelines would spark; causing the gas to ignite and result in massive firestorms in cities and large forest fires.
There would be no water; no communications; and mass transportation would be paralyzed, says Pry. In seven days, he contends that reactors in U.S.’ nuclear power plants would essentially melt down, spreading radioactivity across most of the nation.
What could be done to ensure a quick restoration of the grid?
Some 2000 extra-high voltage (EHV) transformers make up the foundation of the U.S. grid, says Pry. But as he notes, since they each weigh hundreds of tons, they are extraordinarily hard to transport. Thus, if most are destroyed, there’s no quick fix.
So, how do we best protect against an EMP?
The U.S. should be prepared to also include limited surgical strikes to destroy North Korea’s ICBMs, says Pry. But he says the best, safest, and least provocative solution is to EMP-harden the electric grid and other critical infrastructures.
But not everyone agrees that North Korea poses a real EMP threat.
“There are legitimate concerns about EMP effects, but a non-tested system by a country with limited missile experience lowers the immediate threat,” James Clay Moltz, a professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., told me.
The U.S. should work with China and South Korea on clear warnings against any such North Korean actions, says Moltz. That includes U.S. statements on the right to pre-empt or shoot down any suspected EMP weapons which, he says, would constitute nuclear attacks on the U.S.
“But predictions of mass U.S. casualties and demands for costly defenses against a [North Korean] EMP attack seem unjustified at this time,” said Moltz.