Letter Re: Some Details on the High Altitude EMP Threat

Mr. Rawles,
Within our Christian survivalist group in Washington State, we use your novel Patriots, as a primer for friends. Keep up the great job you do.

Please consider the following statement with your readers. I believe that an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack by satellite can happen to the U.S. without any notice at all, and many nations already have the satellites in order to produce the end result. This is not meant to scare, but just an observation on how our great country can be taken back to the 1800s technology and a Third World country economic level, in a microsecond. Please consider my train of thought on this line of reasoning which I send you. I think you “have” to agree that this method is so, so simple.

Can the U.S. be hit without any notice whatsoever by an EMP attack? Yes, and the answer is in the line of thinking to follow. Before you can read this reasoning statement post to it’s conclusion, we could be back to the 1800s in technology. And by the Congressional report of 2008, 90% of Americans could be dead in 12 months [following a nationwide EMP attack.]

I just didn’t realize how many satellites were orbiting the earth at 200 miles up and from so many different nations until today.

Another question to ask oneself: Does another country hate the U.S. to the extent to want to destroy us? Yes, several nations.

Can EMP be delivered by [a nuclear weapon onboard] an already existing and orbiting satellite to devastate our economy? The answer is yes. We’re on borrowed time, preppers.

For a comprehensive assessment of likely damages to electronics equipment and electrical infrastructure, see the 2008 Critical National Infrastructures Report written by the EMP Commission of the Federal government.

A cataclysmic attack throws the United States back to the dark ages, with no electricity, no communication or transportation networks, and no medicines. The most vulnerable members of society—the very young and the very old—begin to die off first, but soon hundreds of thousands of people, and then millions of people, begin dying. Rogue bands of lawless predators, living by rule of force rather than by rule of law, prey on weakened communities. The government, crippled, can’t come to anyone’s rescue. And all it takes is a single bomb detonated high above the atmosphere, two hundred miles above the continental United States.

At first thought, it might seem far-fetched to imagine a single bomb wiping out the entire country. But it wouldn’t be the power of the explosion, per se, that would cause the problem. Instead, the real problem would be the EMP generated by the explosion. Traveling at the speed of light, the EMP would act like an enormous ripple in the earth’s electromagnetic field. As that ripple hits electrical systems, it would get coupled and be way beyond anything hat a typical circuit breaker could handle. William R. Forstchen, the author of the popular novel One Second After in an article titled “EMP 101” A Basic Primer & Suggestions for Preparedness writes of high altitude EMP: “This energy surge will destroy all delicate electronics in your home, even as it destroys all the major components all the way back to the power company’s generators and the phone company’s main relays,” Forstchen writes. “In far less than a millisecond, the entire power grid of the United States, and all that it supports will be destroyed.” And if the power grid goes, then everything goes.

In July 1962, a 1.44 megaton United States nuclear test in space, 400 km (250 miles) above the Pacific Ocean, called the Starfish Prime test, demonstrated to nuclear scientists that the magnitude and effects of a high altitude nuclear explosion were much larger than had been previously calculated. Starfish Prime also made those effects known to the public by causing electrical damage in Hawaii, more than 800 miles away from the detonation point, knocking out about 300 streetlights, setting off numerous burglar alarms and damaging a telephone company microwave link

According to Wikipedia, there are several major factors control the effectiveness of a nuclear EMP weapon. These are:
1. The altitude of the weapon when detonated;
2. The yield and construction details of the weapon;
3. The distance from the weapon when detonated;
4. Geographical depth or intervening geographical features;
5. The local strength of the Earth’s magnetic field.

A Federation of American Scientists (FAS) article stated that an EMP “can easily span continent-sized areas, and this radiation can affect systems on land, sea, and air. A large device detonated at 400–500 km (250 to 312 miles) over Kansas would affect all of the continental U.S. The signal from such an event extends to the visual horizon as seen from the burst point.

Could a Satellite with a nuclear payload already be orbiting Earth? So let’s ask the question, do any satellites orbit at 200 miles above Earth and how many countries have satellites at that altitude? Look at North Korea and Iran, Why are they so interested in building small-scale nuclear missiles? Only one model fits. Forstchen says: ”It’s the fact that the U.S. is so vulnerable that our enemies are even contemplating such an attack.” Iran is in the space race. North Korea is in the space race.

Earth is ensnared today in a thick spider web of satellite orbits. Satellites with different assignments fly at different orbital altitudes. Russian and American navigation satellites orbit from 100 to 300 miles altitude. Civilian photography satellites, such as the American Landsat and the French SPOT, orbit at altitudes ranging from 300 to 600 miles. American NOAA and Russian Meteor weather satellites are at these same altitudes.

Does this seem too difficult for other nations? No. Just load up your nuclear weapon payload, orbit it as long as desired, and then hit the button when the satellite is above Kansas.

If Osama bin Laden – or the dictators of North Korea or Iran – could destroy America as a twenty-first century society and superpower, would they be tempted to try? Given their track records and stated hostility to the United States, we have to operate on the assumption that they would. That assumption would be especially frightening if this destruction could be accomplished with a single attack involving just one high yield nuclear weapon, and if the nature of the attack would mean that its perpetrator might not be immediately or easily identified. Unfortunately, such a scenario is not far-fetched. Frank Gaffney, in an essay titled: “EMP: America’s Achilles’ Heel” wrote: “…a report issued last summer by a blue-ribbon, Congressionally-mandated commission, a single specialized nuclear weapon delivered to an altitude of a few hundred miles over the United States by a ballistic missile would be “capable of causing catastrophe for the nation.” The source of such a cataclysm might be considered the ultimate “weapon of mass destruction” (WMD) – yet it is hardly ever mentioned in the litany of dangerous WMDs we face today.”

JWR Replies: Iran and North Korea are currently developing fission bombs, not fusion (hydrogen) bombs. A large fission bomb would produce an order of magnitude less EMP than a typical fusion bomb. High Altitude (space-based) EMP with a hydrogen bomb is presently a capability of only a handful of nation states. China is the biggest threat, in my opinion. As for fusion bombs concealed inside satellites, that is conceivable, notwithstanding the Space-Based weapons treaty. (The US and the former Soviet Union were signatories, but China was not.)

In my opinion, of far greater concern is EMP from a nuclear bomb on-board an aircraft. Assuming detonation at a high altitude, detonated suicidally, inside the aircraft, rather than being dropped) that would provide a broad line of sight (LOS) for EMP to provide a “footprint” radius of perhaps more than 200 miles, and far beyond line of sight (BLOS) indirect EMP coupling (via power lines and telephone cables) to a much larger radius. I first discussed LOS calculation for EMP in SurvivalBlog back in October of 2005, and I wrote the following more detailed piece in April 2007. Since it is relevant, I’ll post it here again:

The [LOS] answer is both easy and impossible to determine. Let me explain. First, the easy part. The basic line of sight (LOS) footprint range calculation is really simple. It is essentially the same as the calculation that is used to determine the maximum effective range for a VHF or UHF radio onboard an aircraft. Referring back to one of my unclassified notebooks from my Electronic Warfare (5M) course at Fort Huachuca, I find: Assuming level terrain, the maximum potential radius of LOS in nautical miles (nmi) = square root of the emitter’s altitude (in feet) x 1.056. Hence, that would be 149.3 nmi at 20,000 feet above sea level (ASL), or 191.8 nmi at 33,000 feet ASL. (A typical jet or C-130’s service ceiling.) SurvivalBlog reader “Flighter” mentioned: “…some of the larger business jets such as the Airbus ACJ, Gulfstream, Challenger, and Citation are certificated to fly at or above 41,000 feet. The Sino Swearingen SJ30, is perhaps the highest flyer with a certificated ceiling of 49,000 feet. Hypothetically, a dangerous parabolic flight profile could with supplemental oxygen for the flight crew and perhaps even supplemental JATO rockets might push apogee to 75,000 feet in a few aircraft models. (Hey, it would be a suicidal flight anyway.) That is probably the highest altitude that could be expected for a terrorist to touch off a nuke–at least in the near future. That would equate to a footprint with a 280 mile radius. Oh, yes, they might also get really creative and use an unmanned balloon. (The word’s record for those was 51.82 km (170,000 feet / 32.2 miles) But that is highly unlikely. What is likely? A ground level detonation. The EMP footprint of fission bomb detonated near ground level on dead level ground (plains country) might be no more than a 45 mile radius.

Now on to the part that is impossible to predict: long range linear coupling.  Because telephone lines, power lines, and railroad tracks will act as giant antennas for EMP, the EMP waveforms will be coupled through those structures for many, many miles beyond line of sight (BLOS). Just how many miles BLOS is not yet known. I believe that if it were not for the advent of the Partial Test Ban Treaty in 1963 (which banned atmospheric and space nuclear weapons tests), the DOD and AEC would have had the opportunity to conduct far more extensive tests to further characterize the panoply of potential EMP effects. But those test bans have kept us in the dark. In the absence of practical data, there is a lot guesswork, even among “applied physics” expert nuclear weapons physicists. We may not know the full extent of the EMP risk until after we see that bright flash on the horizon.

For planning purposes, you can probably safely assume that if you are living more than 280 miles from a major city, then your vehicle electronics will be safe from a terrorist  nuke’s EMP. (Since you will be BLOS to the EMP footprint of a nuke that is set off below 75,000 feet ASL.) Your home electronics, however, anywhere in CONUS might be at risk due to long range linear coupling–that is if your house is on grid power. This, BTW, is one more good reason for you to set up your own off-grid self sufficient photovoltaic (PV) power system. The folks at Ready Made Resources. offer free consulting on PV system sizing, site selection, and design.

There may be other high altitude delivery methods that I haven’t considered, that would provide a broader LOS. But at least the hydrogen bomb club appears fairly small, so there is less risk of widespread EMP . It is conceivable that a Russian fusion bomb might have fallen into terrorist hands during the chaotic 1990s, but if one had, then it probably would have been used by now. Thus, at present, the terrorist and rogue state threat is just for fission bombs, which makes the EMP threat much smaller and more localized.