Nuclear Possibilities

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A discussion on a previous blog got some of us into discussing changing military technologies. The subject then was naval navigation, the prevention of ships going aground and what might happen if something, perhaps like a solar flare, took out the GPS satellites which are now integral to many other electronic systems on which modern systems depend. Navies would have to fall back on chronometers and sextants, and I, having been retired 30 years now, wondered whether the U.S. Navy has retained that old technology. Commenter Anson Burlingame then posed the possibility of an electromagnetic pulse (EMP), something that can be triggered by a nuclear blast and used to disable both solid-state electronics, electrical power grids and equipment of all kinds.

A little online research reveals that an EMP is not only quite possible but has in fact been demonstrated and studied extensively as a part of early nuclear weapons testing. It is so well known in fact that there is an extensive Wikipedia page  on it.  Here are a few facts about the EMP threat:

  1. An EMP is most-efficiently produced by a fission rather than a fusion nuclear blast.
  2. The effective range of an EMP is proportional to the size of the warhead.
  3. To be effective an EMP blast needs to be detonated in space, above the atmosphere, which means a ballistic missile launch is required.
  4. The height of the blast is critical to its range of effectiveness, but that is easily hundreds of miles. In fact, one large blast could disable electrical systems over virtually the entire United States.
  5. Solid-state electronics, which are vulnerable to EMP, are ubiquitous and include virtually all communications systems, media, electrical power systems, medical devices, and vehicles.

There was a concerted effort at one time during the Cold War to produce military systems that would be less vulnerable to EMP, including miniature vacuum tubes, but while shielding and other methods of defense are known, they appear to have been largely abandoned.

It seems to me that the principal danger of an EMP launch against our country right now is extremely unlikely. The two most unstable potential enemies who might soon develop such a capability are of course North Korea and Iran, neither of which has a launch system capable of reaching the U.S. at this time, although they are surely working on it along with refinement of warhead technology. It would be naive to think that our potential enemies are unaware of EMP technology.

But, there is deterrence. We have the satellite capability to detect and pinpoint the source of any ballistic missile launch and a virtually invulnerable counter-strike system in our Trident missile submarine force which would be remote from the homeland.  Let us assume that command launch communications to those mighty boats have been hardened.  (Other countries should wonder whether any of the warheads on our submarine missiles are EMP designs.)It is surely in the national interest to deter the less-stable countries from further developing nuclear-tipped missile capabilities, and to that end there is some heartening news I heard recently in a headline.

“Air Force now has 30,000 lb. Bunker Busters.”

MOP falling

As soon as I saw the name I thought of last night’s GOP debate on foreign affairs and the wide disagreements among the candidates over the nuclear weapons threat that Iran poses. By all reports Iran has buried their facilities in hardened sites far underground. However, the “Bunker Buster” described  appears to be a viable answer to the threat. It may be no coincidence that Boeing’s bunker buster, more properly named Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP), is designed to take out hardened facilities at least 200 feet deep. (I read somewhere that Iran’s are at about 180 feet.)

Which brings me to the recent GOP debate on foreign affairs. As Anson B. mentioned, candidate Gingrich is fully aware of threats like an EMP, and that’s a good thing. I believe Jon Huntsman is as well, with his extensive foreign affairs experience. Romney didn’t flub, but he didn’t shine either. (He seems to think China is the biggest military threat, but China seems to me to be a model of stability compared to three others I can think of.)  I surely can’t say the same for the rest of the crowd, including Herman Cain who wasn’t sure what country Libya was, and I submit that in these unstable times the voting public should rank such experience very high on their voting criteria lists.

Probably the most alarming thing I heard on that debate actually had nothing to do with either Iran or North Korea, it was instead what Rick Perry said about Pakistan, a nuclear-armed country which already has proven ICBM capabilities. Perry said he was ready to withhold all “foreign aid” from Pakistan and seemed ready to sever all ties unless they performed more to our liking. This raises the specter of Pakistan falling into the hands of radical, Islamic fundamentalist hands, a likelihood even Bachman understood. That, to me, is the greatest danger of all – a nuclear-armed theocracy. When religion is involved, rationality departs. Why on earth did CNN ask no debate questions about Pakistan? Is that a question too big to ask?

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
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20 Responses to Nuclear Possibilities

  1. IzaakMak says:

    I first heard about the EMP threat when I watched the National Geographic Electronic Armageddon program, which also showed how vulnerable we are to similar damage being caused by Coronal Mass Ejection events. Very scary indeed. But unless something happens to start a new fire under our old cold war rivalry with Russia, I don’t really see any of the major players trying a strike like that. Hell, according to reports like Fake chips from China threaten U.S. military systems, China may just knock out our military electronics capability without having to fire a shot.

    The only realistic threats I see possibly using such a weapon are the crazies in N. Korea, Iran, and Pakistan. And of the three, the one I fear most is Pakistan. I think that it’s all but inevitable that Pakistan will become a nuclear-armed theocracy, and there’s really nothing we can do to stop it short of all-out war. But a preemptive action against them, despite all the associated risks, may, ultimately, be the lesser of several evils we cannot ignore. The thing is though, I don’t see anyone with a chance to gain the White House that I trust to do the right thing…


  2. Jim Wheeler says:

    I generally agree with your take, Izaak.

    I am wondering how India, Pakistan’s ideological foe, might fit into this puzzle. In a worst-case scenario I suppose India might take them out. Also, they are just across the mountains and downwind from China, another player that should have a great interest in discouraging a nuclear interchange.

    As for the politics, I think Huntsman is the best for foreign affairs and defense, and I don’t think Romney is unsafe. But the rest of that crowd is downright scary, especially Perry. The Obama administration seems to be doing as well as can be expected.


  3. ansonburlingame says:


    A good blog and a real possibility. It is also a threat unknown to most Americans.

    ANY country that has ballistic missile capability AND a relatively basic nuclear weapon of again relatively small yield, COULD shut us down, electrically, in the US for some extended period of time. And such missilies do NOT have to be launched from the “homeland” of the firing country.

    Put a ballistic missile on a merchant ship, send it to say the Gulf of Mexico and “fire when ready Gridley”. All it has to do is go UP a few hundred miles to create an EMP over the U.S.. So Iran or North Korea for example does not need an 8000 mile ballistic missile carrying a nuclear warhead (or two or three). Again put it on a merchant ship, send it our way and BANG, there goes our electricity, computers, etc. Try using your ATM in such an event or swipe your credit card at the grocery store. Checks won’t work either.

    Now given such an “attack” that causes no observable nuclear blast, radiation, destruction of builidings etc. Americans will only know such an attack has been executed because the “lights go off”.

    Now how does the President tell the American people what has happened? No TV, no radio, no newspapers, no telephones. Send out the Pony Express from DC is his best bet. Cars won’t work either with an EMP, at least not for a while.

    As well would a President respond to such an attack by “taking out Terhan”, leveling that city and killing perhpas millions of people while eveyone in America is still alive, but not nearly as well off as they used to be. Would he, the President even try to “take out Iran” in its entirety given such an EMP attack on the U.S.?

    This is a very new topic for Americans to consider today even though the threat is very old, like at least 50 years old. But as nuclear weapons proliferate to the real “crazies” around the world, well who knows what might happen next.



    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Very good point, Anson. Although it seems obvious in the telling I really hadn’t considered the merchant ship scenario. That’s scary as hell.

      I would hope and assume that such a launch ship would be instantly identified and pinpointed upon launch, and that an op-plan exists to capture it for intel, rather than destroying it. But that leaves the question whether we have enough resources hardened against an EMP to even accomplish that. And, trying to think from the other side’s point of view, there would have to be some kind of escape plan to thwart identifying the country or group behind the launch. How about a cluster of smaller ships or boats converging on the launching ship immediately after the launch and then dispersing among others? The mind boggles. Where’s James Bond when you need him?


  4. John Erickson says:

    There is a positive side to this. It keeps history nerds like me valuable to the nation, because when the lights go out, my non-electronic field phones, pedal generators, and large collection of kerosene lamps will come to the fore – not to mention my familiarity with carburetors! (Seriously – it’s not that hard to switch a 1980s car from fuel injection to a carburetor.) And the Amish, no great fans of electricity (though they use it far more than people think), are just down the road. 😉
    Though I do have to agree, I think that a non-traceable launch from ship or remote land location is more likely than Pakistan, China, N. Korea, or India corking one off from their sovereign soil. Besides, rather than ruin all our cool toys, why not haul a briefcase with a “salted” fission bomb to the top of each major city’s skyscraper and set it off? Use the radiation to kill us off, but all our neat toys are intact!
    Or is there something fundamentally wrong with me that I actually think about these things? 😀


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Nothing wrong that I can see, John. We have good company, Steven King and Tom Clancy among others. All the ideas are out there, but the terrorists have been largely a stupid lot, OBL being the exception. The quality of the people we’ve caught so far seems pitiful to me – the Times Square (would-be) bomber, the Underwear (would-be) bomber, the model-airplane (would-be) bomber. We spend billions of dollars, create a massive bureaucracy (TSA), and meanwhile somebody is probably outfitting a merchant ship with a crude but effective IRBM. I hope I’m wrong. But never fear. If Rick Perry gets in, he’ll fix it – line up the usual suspects and let ’em all have it. Better keep your survivalist supplies handy.


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      I didn’t mean to ignore your interesting comment, John. It’s just that I’ve been distracted with our local feud lately. But anyway, I agree – a suitcase bomb is a lot more likely than an IRBM. Yipes!


      • John Erickson says:

        No problem, sir. Real life hasn’t been too much fun for me, either, compliments of some renters who won’t help me repair our shared drive (that they are tearing up).
        May we both enjoy a Christmas truce, a la 1914! 🙂


  5. ansonburlingame says:

    To all,

    I believe all of you are diminishing a serious issue with your “sci-fi” scenarios and disdain of “stupid terrorists”. I made SSBN patrols in the late 60’s and early 70’s, ten in a row of those suckers. We had a device right in the “conn” on two different submarines called Project Look. If it “went off” it could reflect an exoatmospheric nuclear explosion and subsequent imminent loss of all communications including a retalitory nuclear launch against the Soviets.

    Trouble was that a strong thunderstorm with lots of lightning could “set it off” as well!!!

    My point is that in our SIOP(stratigic integrated operations plan) I am sure (but do not know with certainty) that one of our first steps in the path to Armagedon would be an EMP over both the Soviet Union and China. But for sure the details in the SIOP were so highly classified (and complicated) who knows what might have happened in those days long ago.

    Today is very different and the treat of an EMP as a “first strike” without a followup Armagedon launch from either side must be taken into consideration. For sure the Amish will survive just fine. But……?

    Juist imagine as you type your reply to this comment if your computer “goes down” and all the lights go off. What next for America becomes the question and there is no easy answer for sure. In fact I know of ONLY one politician that has said a word about this matter for years and it is Newt Gingrich.

    Does that mean Newt is “crazy” to put an EMP on his top three list of strategic concerns for America tomorrow? As well even Tom Clancy has not included an EMP is any of his books of which I am aware of and I have read most of them.



    • Jim Wheeler says:


      You said,

      I believe all of you are diminishing a serious issue with your “sci-fi” scenarios and disdain of “stupid terrorists”.

      The only one here I can see who disdained stupid terrorists was me, but you are misdirecting my meaning for some reason. My point was that far too much money is being spent on the TSA and frisking grannys instead of, perhaps, trying to prevent things like the merchant ship scenario we’ve been discussing.

      And I for one don’t need to be reminded what life would be like without electricity, and I can tell that John doesn’t either.


      • ansonburlingame says:

        I only was refering to the expansion of “what if’s” in terms of real scenarios above. I thought all of us were getting off track from the original blog, a serious discussion of the possibility (real in my view) of an EMP attack.

        As for “life without electricity”, I don’t think any Americans really envision such a world today. But recall we began and prospered mightily for almost 200 years before such technoloty enabled us to……??? Live more comfortably, absolutely. LIve “better”, well that can be argued to some degree.

        I do know from my reading of history that the strength of the human spirit decides how nations prosper fundamentally over the entire course of history. Convinence is “nice” but…..???

        But I also recognize that “survival of the fittest” is something that humans try to change as well with technology. But all the technology in the world cannot change “Mother Nature” at least fundamentally, like it or not.



  6. ansonburlingame says:

    to all again,.

    I went back into my Kindle archives and found a fairly recent book on this subject that might be of interest to others.

    One Second After is a fictional story written byWilliam Forstchen in 2008. It contains a foreword written by Newt Gingrich explaining the seriousness of such a possible attack (EMP). For those really interested there are a series of references to Government studies done on such possible events, all unclassified. God only knows what the classifed archieves might show the public.

    A small town in the mountains of western North Carolina is the setting. It is a story of survivial with no electricity, no transportation (other than walking and animals), no communications and a return to “frontier days” of hunting, fishing, no medicines (after supplies run out) as well as fictional human drama of “gangs” roving the countryside in search of food, warmth, plunder, etc.

    IF, and only if such an attack is plausible and IF, and only if a recovery of the “grid”, etc is as prolonged as depicted, then the book has something of interest to say in how life in America could be in such a future event.

    In my view the plausibility of such an attack is very technically achievable. How long “things” would be “down” and the political objectives by any country launching such an attack agains the USA is the big question mark left unsaid in this fictional account.

    I recommend it as a matter of interest.



  7. Jim says:

    Everboddy – it has been interesting to read this post & your comments.

    As Anson noted, EMP is something that most folks only have meager knowledge of. It is poised to become a ‘scare line’ that can be exploited due to the public’s lack of understanding. The reality of EMP is scary enough.

    Our military has, as Jim described, long ago acquired EMP-resistant hardware. If the difficulty were predominantly solid-state electronics, it wouldn’t be half bad. In fact, a wide array of devices are susceptible to EMP, ESD (electro-static discharge), HERF (high-energy radio frequency), etc. The means for mitigating vulnerabilities are well-developed in Electronics Engineering. That does not mean that it’s easy to do.

    The original problem with ESD damage of electronics components was discovered in RESISTORS, which we usually think of as rugged things. They were damaged by static from cardboard packaging rubbing around. The military does continue to deploy EMP-resistant hardware. Some degree of vulnerability has been created by incorporation of COTS (commercial off-the-shelf) hardware, not specifically designed for the ultimate military environment. Critical systems are still full-spec.

    The big effect of EMP for the military is national infrastructure. Our power grid, alone, is one giant vulnerability. Loss of civilian infrastructure means that the military does not eat or get fuel. Even the military has lots of stuff – portable generators, for instance – that EMP will damage.

    As real as are our vulnerabilities is the difficulty for an adversary to deploy EMP. Big countries – China, Russia – can do it. Our relationships there are much better than for smaller countries – Iran, North Korea – who probably just aren’t stupid enough to do it, even if they managed to overcome the huge difficulties. Detection is a biggie. John, there is no “non-traceable launch”. We track small boats by radar, interdicting many drug runs, etc. An exo-atmospheric launch leaves huge traces of its origin. As Jim has indicated, we could spend ourselves silly on techy and paranoid defenses (oops, already tried that) and the bad guys can still do something sneaky.

    Project Look missed the boat (te he, a pun!), Anson. The electronic signature of EMP and atmospheric discharges are very different and easy to differentiate. I wish that I could have worked on that critter. Surely (pleeease) the detectors are better now. In some repects, the potential damage of EMP is easier to mitigate than lightning. That is, if I had the same budget for both (generally so for military, not for commercial), I would find the EMP protection to be easier than the lightning. EMP has a lot less energy, packed in a shorter time (making it very powerful). Less energy & less time are easier to handle. I have designed equipment which took lightning strikes that destroyed offices full of equipment protected by expensive consultants’ gear.

    OK, I’m done now – for what it’s worth.


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Jim S.,

      Your words are always well-considered and researched, and always welcome. Given, as you say, that electrical-hardening is technically feasible and not too hard, let’s hope that our burgeoning bureaucracies in the defense and intelligence communities and the DOD have taken necessary steps. But I’m not holding my breath on that. (Some say that a camel is a horse designed by a committee.)


    • John Erickson says:

      Jim S – What I meant by “untraceable launch” was that the origin of the device itself could be untraceable. Yes, we can definitely find the boat/island/desert/whatever it came from, but who put it there? As difficult as it would be to determine what country owned the ship (in a ship-board launch), now add in the difficulty if the ship has been hijacked by pirates (whether by actual pirates like the Somalis, or state-operatives or “rogue factions” disguising themselves as pirates).
      That was all I meant – it would be hard to determine who built the nuclear device used, and harder still if the device is stolen, like from the old Soviet stockpiles. Just because we find traces suggesting the device came from (for instance) Russia doesn’t mean Russians fired it.


      • Jim says:

        John, it seems really darn difficult to do, but it has actually been done many times – not as a result of a nuclear attack, of course, but we have practice from nuclear weapons tests. All sorts of things are traceable – nuclear materials (even what’s left after an explosion), missile fragments (booster casings, solid-fuel residue, electronics, wires). All of these, and more, have signatures which are forensically traceable. We also routinely trace ships, for other reasons (smugglers, thieves, blockade runners, etc.), in spite of attempts to conceal their origins. We also have often tracked the financial transactions – even those in cash – that are involved. We don’t have to develop new capabilities to determine that a stolen Russian device was boosted by a donated North Korean missile from a stolen Nigerian freighter using funds originating in Iran. The bad guys know this, and they are loath to find out if their probability for surreptitious success is 10% or 90%.


        • Jim Wheeler says:

          These are good points, Jim, and they remind me of yet another I thought of about the merchant ship scenario. Launching an IRBM from a shipboard tube is not a simple matter. The missile itself is a very complex system, but the launch system would also be. It would require testing and it seems likely that our systems would detect such tests, thus identifying the testers.


  8. ansonburlingame says:

    Getting in a little late in this last round.

    Jim S IS correct in his technical assessments, in my view. As well, let me emphasize that POST BLAST, essentially anywhere, we can gather the fission products and determine “countries of origin” of the fissionable material causing the original blast. Give enough time to collect the residue from such a nuclear blase we can scientifically determine who shot the sucker at us or at least who made the nuclear material originally. Our National Labs are and always have been real experts at such stuff.

    As for “hardening”, it is technically rather simple to do so as Jim S. points out. Just protecting “banks” against strong lightening stikes is an example. I also assume that given our classified awareness of technology and EMP that many defense facilities as well as ships at sea (a submerged submarine is AUTOMATICALLY PROTECTED from the water above it unless antennas to tranmit the “pulse” to the ship itself are raised above the water), are protected to some significant degree.

    It is the massive civilian infrastructure such as our “grid” that is laid bare to the ill designs of those that would like to destroy us. There are indeed such folks out there. Now go read my latest blog on Nuclear Security if you want to consider “those” implications.



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