Letter Re: Counting the Potential EMP Attack Casualties

I don’t understand why the discussion on your blog regarding EMP assumes only ground based and aircraft altitude detonations. It seems to me an equally likely attempt will be a ballistic missile detonation at maximum altitude, such as with a Scud or Chinese one, launched from a freighter off the east or west coast of the US. Al Qaeda is known to own a fleet of freighters which are not well tracked (stolen in hijacks or even purchased outright). Iran, North Korea, Syria, and [Dr. A.Q.] Khan’s rogue network are all working hard to develop a nuclear capability and are hostile to the US. China has advanced nuclear capabilities and is gearing up to attack Taiwan by 2030, Wouldn’t it be convenient if a third party such as Al Qaeda, were to launch an EMP strike at 200 mile altitude of the US just prior to their invasion of Taiwan? China has actively assisted Islamic nations and groups hostile to the US with missile, communication technology, supplies and infrastructure. Those same Islamic countries have a long record of aiding and abetting Al Qaeda and other Islamic terrorist organizations.

While EMP detonations at ground level or in aircraft are also possibilities, a high altitude missile detonation is also highly likely and would have far worse impact. A single detonation at 300 mile altitude or more would inflict damage across most of the continental US and even parts of Canada and Mexico . This worse case scenario would seem to be of great interest to survival minded folks. Limiting discussion to 200 mile radius [of effect] seems unwise.

I enjoy your blog and 99% of your writing is prescient and spot on. This one assumptions therefore stands out as a big gap in risk assessment. Yours truly, – JB in Oregon

JWR Replies: Let’s start with your “terrorists with a Scud” scenario: From what I have read, the maximum altitude of a typical R-11 Scud missile in a parabolic trajectory (vertical or near vertical flight path) is just 78 kilometers (48.5 miles), with a time of flight of 5.4 minutes. The maximum velocity at the time of booster burnout is 1.43 kilometers per second. That is far short of achieving the near-orbital velocity of an ICBM (which if I recall correctly is roughly 6 to 7 kilometers per second). Let’s suppose that a terrorist group gets hold of an operational Scud missile and a compact nuke (with a weight within the Scud’s payload limit and sufficiently small dimensions to fit the Scud’s payload parameters). Even then, the only way that they could achieve the potential maximum 48.5 mile altitude over the Continental United States (CONUS) would be if they launched it within our territory. That isn’t very likely. If they launched a Scud from a barge or a ship say 30 miles off the coast with a depressed trajectory, it might be at most 15 miles up, at apogee, over our territory.

For details on how to calculate line of sight (and hence EMP footprint dimensions), see some of my previous SurvivalBlog posts. (Wherein I also discuss beyond line-of-sight EMP coupling through power and telephone lines.) I’m not a rocket scientist (my name after all, is Jim Rawles, not Jim Oberg), so I don’t claim to be an expert. But I do have a rudimentary understanding of how these things work.

There are only a few nation states that have ICBM technology, and that is essentially what would be required to put an EMP-producing nuke at 200+ mile altitude over the CONUS. It is much more realistic to assume that a Third World nation or a terrorist group would use a jet aircraft (or perhaps, if they were quite clever, a large radiosonde-type balloon) at high altitude in an attempt to maximize EMP line of sight. And, as I’ve previously stated, even the highest flying aircraft would give line of sight to produce an EMP footprint of at the very most a 280 mile radius. It would take 30+ such blasts to blanket the CONUS with EMP.

Yes, nation states like North Korea and China have ICBM technology, but the most likely near-future scenarios involve Osama bin-Laden, not Kim Jong Il.