Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack
The EMP Commission was established pursuant to title XIV of the Floyd D. Spence National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2001 (as enacted into law by Public Law 106-398; 114 Stat. 1654A-345). Duties of the EMP Commission include assessing:
1.) the nature and magnitude of potential high-altitude EMP threats to the United States from all potentially hostile states or non-state actors that have or could acquire nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles enabling them to perform a high-altitude EMP attack against the United States within the next 15 years;
2.) the vulnerability of United States military and especially civilian systems to an EMP attack, giving special attention to vulnerability of the civilian infrastructure as a matter of emergency preparedness;
3.) the capability of the United States to repair and recover from damage inflicted on United States military and civilian systems by an EMP attack; and
4.) the feasibility and cost of hardening select military and civilian systems against EMP attack.
The Commission is charged with identifying any steps it believes should be taken by the United States to better protect its military and civilian systems from EMP attack.
Multiple reports and briefings associated with this effort have been produced by the EMP Commission including an Executive Report (PDF, 578KB) and a Critical National Infrastructures Report (PDF, 7MB) describing findings and recommendations.
The EMP Commission was reestablished via the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2006 to continue its efforts to monitor, investigate, make recommendations, and report to Congress on the evolving threat to the United States from electromagnetic pulse attack resulting from the detonation of a nuclear weapon or weapons at high altitude.
Dr. William R. Graham, Chair
Dr. John S. Foster, Jr.
Mr. Earl Gjelde
Dr. Robert J. Hermann
Mr. Henry (Hank) M. Kluepfel
Gen Richard L. Lawson, USAF (Ret.)
Dr. Gordon K. Soper
Dr. Lowell L. Wood, Jr.
Dr. Joan B. Woodard
Dr. Michael J. Frankel, Executive Director
A Cuban Missile Crisis for Today?
By Hank Cooper | National Review Online
October 22, 2012 4:00 A.M.
Fifty years ago, I was a young Bell Telephone Laboratories engineer on the heels of celebrating with our development team the deployment of Telstar, the first telecommunications satellite — and also a grad student at New York University. I vividly remember the evening of October 22, 1962, watching a student-union black-and-white TV broadcast of President John F. Kennedy’s address to the nation. The president announced that the Soviet Union was deploying nuclear weapons in Cuba, only 90 miles from our Florida coast — and the actions that the United States was taking in response. (For the unedited broadcast, see this.)
For the rest of the Cuban Missile Crisis’s fateful 13 days (which were already at midstream), we and all Americans reviewed our “duck and cover” preparations for what seemed to be a looming holocaust. Kennedy declared the highest nuclear alert short of launch, DEFCON 2, which, among other things, may have involved plans to deploy NATO aircraft (among others) to bomb Soviet targets. We now know from Soviet records of those fateful events, publicly released in the early 1990s, that we were even closer to that brink than we then realized.
Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s promise to President Kennedy on October 28 that he would cease deploying nuclear-armed missiles in Cuba ended the crisis and the blockade. But unknown for decades was that 100 smaller Soviet nuclear warheads were already in Cuba, and Fidel Castro wanted to keep them. Had he prevailed, Cuba would have become a nuclear power. And if Kennedy had known that Khrushchev had all but lied on October 28, the U.S. might have undertaken an all-out invasion of the island, triggering a holocaust. Happily, these weapons were also removed by the end of 1962.
Among the lessons of these events, which many consider the closest we came to a nuclear exchange during the Cold War, is that our intelligence community can be badly informed. Our technical capabilities for gathering information are much improved since a half-century ago, but this lesson remains true — even regarding the possibility of a renewed threat to the United States of a nuclear attack from the south, courtesy not of the Russians but of Iran.
Indeed, even as Israel seems sure that Iran will not gain a nuclear-weapons capability in the next few months, others doubt that we really know Iran’s capabilities so precisely — and they warn that Iran could pose an imminent threat not only to Israel but also to the United States.
For example, Reza Kahlili is a counterterrorism expert who served in the CIA’s directorate of operations as a spy in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and currently serves on the Task Force on National and Homeland Security, an advisory board authorized by Congress. He warns of an October surprise that could affect our upcoming election. Last year, he noted that when Iran gets a nuclear weapon, it will already have the tested ballistic-missile capability needed to launch it from a ship off our coasts, including from the Gulf of Mexico.
So we potentially could again be rudely awakened by a nuclear attack from a few miles off our coasts. As I have previously argued, this is an existential threat, because the associated electromagnetic pulse (EMP) from a high-altitude nuclear burst could lead to the ultimate death of two-thirds or more of all Americans, as reported to Congress by the congressionally mandated EMP Commission.
Thus, we could, in the near future, confront a modern Cuban Missile Crisis — produced by the threat of a nuclear attack either from a ship off our coasts or from Venezuela, which Iran is supporting with important technology and know-how. We are totally vulnerable to this threat.
While our missile-defense site in Alaska provides a limited defense against long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) launched from Iran, it is totally ineffective against this threat from the sea or from Venezuela. An additional East Coast site, as advocated by some in Congress, is a worthy objective to improve our defense against Iranian ICBMs, but it would not end our total vulnerability to Iranian missiles launched from ships off our coasts.
We should end this vulnerability by deploying the Navy’s Standard Missile 3 (SM-3) interceptor and an associated radar and command-and-control system at several military bases around the Gulf of Mexico. This would be a homeland-defense version of the Aegis Ashore component of the U.S. program for building comparable capabilities in Central Europe. (Aegis Ashore is essentially a land-based version of the ballistic-missile-defense system currently based on 24 or so Aegis ships.)
The Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency is developing a prototype of the needed Aegis Ashore infrastructure — and, once developed, the capability probably can be deployed more quickly at Gulf of Mexico coastal sites than it can in Central Europe. Given the defense footprint of the current SM-3 interceptor, only three or four sites would be needed. Planned and funded improvements of the SM-3 will double the defensive footprint, so that as few as two sites may be sufficient to provide the same defensive coverage.
Last summer, I briefed the Jackson County, Mississippi, board of supervisors on these issues, and I know they would welcome placement of the first site at Pascagoula, which is where our Aegis Cruisers are built. Other potential locations include Corpus Christi, Texas; Tyndall or Eglin Air Force Bases, in the Florida panhandle; and McDill Air Force Base, in Tampa. Congress would do well to initiate the planning for such an initiative at these and other potential military bases around the Gulf of Mexico, while debating the fate of “sequester.”
This is an urgent matter.
Whatever the uncertainties in 1962, President Kennedy knew he was dealing with an adversary that could be deterred from carrying out an existential threat to America. Today we confront an Iranian regime that is dedicated to destroying the “Great Satan,” America — and may even seek an “end times” catastrophe to hasten the “return of the Mahdi.”
It is not at all clear that they can be deterred. Indeed, many of their actions — and words — suggest that they are quite prepared to commit suicide to kill a multitude of Americans and destroy all we hold dear. We dare not respond with defenses needed to protect America.
A quick fix to our current vulnerability to this near-term threat is necessary, but not sufficient. Also needed is a comprehensive, increasingly robust missile-defense system to defend all Americans and our overseas troops, friends, and allies from the likely greater numbers of more capable future ballistic missiles.
— Henry F. Cooper was ambassador and chief U.S. negotiator at the Geneva Defense and Space Talks with the Soviet Union (1985–89) and director of the Strategic Defense Initiative (1990–93).
...CNN Fact Check: Iran and the Bomb
By Matt Smith, CNN
updated 8:16 AM EDT, Fri October 12, 2012
(CNN) -- Fears of a possibly nuclear-armed Iran took center stage early in Thursday night's vice presidential debate between incumbent Democrat Joe Biden and his Republican challenger, Paul Ryan.
"When Barack Obama was elected, they had enough fissile material, nuclear material, to make one bomb. Now they have enough to make five," Ryan said. "They're racing toward a nuclear weapon. They're four years closer toward a nuclear weapons capability."
The Wisconsin congressman said Iran's progress has sped along "because this administration has no credibility on this issue."
Biden hit back by criticizing what he called "bluster" and "loose talk" about the issue, saying international sanctions are crippling the Iranian economy and that U.S. and Israeli officials believe Iran is "a good way away" from getting the bomb.
Iran has greatly expanded its ability to produce nuclear fuel in the past four years, revealing a second uranium enrichment plant in 2009 and continuing to defy U.N. demands that it halt work until questions about its intentions are resolved.
A bit of tech talk here: About three-quarters of 1% of naturally occurring uranium is uranium-235, the radioactive isotope used to produce a nuclear reaction. To produce fuel for nuclear power plants, that concentration has to be increased to 3 to 5%, while research reactors use fuel with a U-235 concentration of about 20%. To make a nuclear weapon, that concentration has to be increased to more than 90%.
As of May, Iran had produced about 6,200 kilograms (13,640 pounds) of power plant-grade uranium and 146 kilograms (320 pounds) of fuel at 20% concentration, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog.
Based on those figures, the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security, estimated that Iran could produce enough weapons-grade uranium for five nuclear bombs. The organization, led by former U.N. weapons inspector David Albright, says Iran could build a crude bomb with 20-25 kg (44-55 pounds) of highly enriched uranium.
However, it would take Iran more than two months to produce that amount if it started with 20%-grade uranium, and "several months" to make enough for a bomb using low-enriched uranium. That would give the world community enough time to detect the operation and organize a response, ISIS noted in June.
And there's more to building a bomb than just having the uranium, as Biden noted. ISIS estimated last week, that Iran would need "many additional months" to develop a device that could be tested "and even longer to make a reliable warhead for a ballistic missile."
Iran has denied conducting any nuclear weapons research, insisting its nuclear program is for civilian purposes. The IAEA has verified that Iran has not diverted any of its declared uranium stock, but cautions that Iran "is not providing the necessary cooperation" to verify that all nuclear work is peaceful.
Israel has accused Iran of working toward a nuclear weapon, raising concerns that it could launch a preventive attack on Iranian nuclear facilities. Israel is believed to have its own nuclear arsenal, but has never disclosed whether it has the bomb -- and Iran has accused Israel and the United States of trying to sabotage its nuclear facilities.
As for the United States, American intelligence agencies believe Iran "is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons" but has not made the decision to build a bomb, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told a Senate committee in January.
Conclusion: According to at least one widely circulated estimate, Iran could produce enough uranium for five bombs, as Ryan says. But the same estimate notes that it would draw attention if it did so, and that's only part of the work necessary to make a weapon.
Electromagnetic pulse impact far and wide
By Dan Vergano, USA TODAY
Modern society relies on technologies vulnerable to electromagnetic pulse effects that, if strong enough, can induce currents that burn out wires and circuits.
The sky erupts. Cities darken, food spoils and homes fall silent. Civilization collapses.
End-of-the-world novel? A video game? Or could such a scenario loom in America's future?
There is talk of catastrophe ahead, depending on whom you believe, because of the threat of an electromagnetic pulse triggered by either a supersized solar storm or terrorist A-bomb, both capable of disabling the electric grid that powers modern life.
Electromagnetic pulses (EMP) are oversized outbursts of atmospheric electricity. Whether powered by geomagnetic storms or by nuclear blasts, their resultant intense magnetic fields can induce ground currents strong enough to burn out power lines and electrical equipment across state lines.
The threat has even become political fodder, drawing warnings from former House speaker Newt Gingrich, a likely presidential contender.
"We are not today hardened against this," he told a Heritage Foundation audience last year. "It is an enormous catastrophic threat."
Meanwhile, in Congress, a "Grid Act" bill aimed at the threat awaits Senate action, having passed in the House of Representatives.
Fear is evident. With the sun's 11-year solar cycle ramping up for its stormy maximum in 2012, and nuclear concerns swirling about Iran and North Korea, a drumbeat of reports and blue-ribbon panels center on electromagnetic pulse scenarios.
"We're taking this seriously," says Ed Legge of the Edison Electric Institute in Washington, which represents utilities. He points to a North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC) report in June, conducted with the Energy Department, that found pulse threats to the grid "may be much greater than anticipated."
There are "some important reasons for concern," says physicist Yousaf Butt of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass. "But there is also a lot of fluff."
At risk are the more than 200,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines that cross North America, supplying 1,800 utilities the power for TVs, lights, refrigerators and air conditioners in homes, and for the businesses, hospitals and police stations that take care of us all.
"The electric grid's vulnerability to cyber and to other attacks is one of the single greatest threats to our national security," Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., said in June as he introduced the bill to the House of Representatives.
Markey and others point to the August 2003 blackout that struck states from Michigan to Massachusetts, and southeastern Canada, as a sign of the grid's vulnerability. Triggered by high-voltage lines stretched by heat until they sagged onto overgrown tree branches, the two-day blackout shut down 100 power plants, cut juice to about 55 million people and cost $6 billion, says the 2004 U.S.-Canada Power System Outage Task Force.
Despite the costs, most of them from lost work, a National Center for Environmental Health report in 2005 found "minimal" death or injuries tied directly to the 2003 blackout — a few people died in carbon monoxide poisonings as a result of generators running in their homes or from fires started from candles. But the effects were pervasive: Television and radio stations went off the air in Detroit, traffic lights and train lines stopped running in New York, turning Manhattan into the world's largest pedestrian mall, and water had to be boiled after water mains lost pressure in Cleveland.
Simple physics, big worry
The electromagnetic pulse threat is a function of simple physics: Electromagnetic pulses and geomagnetic storms can alter Earth's magnetic field. Changing magnetic fields in the atmosphere, in turn, can trigger surging currents in power lines.
"It is a well-understood phenomenon," says Butt, who this year reviewed geomagnetic and nuke blast worries in The Space Review.
Two historic incidents often figure in the discussion:
• On July 9, 1962, the Atomic Energy Commission and the Defense Atomic Support Agency detonated the Starfish Prime, a 1.4-megaton H-bomb test at an altitude of 250 miles, some 900 miles southwest of Hawaii over the Pacific Ocean. The pulse shorted out streetlights in Oahu.
• On March 9, 1989, the sun spat a million-mile-wide blast of high-temperature charged solar gas straight at the Earth. The "coronal mass ejection" struck the planet three days later, triggering a geomagnetic storm that made the northern lights visible in Texas. The storm also induced currents in Quebec's power grid that knocked out power for 6 million people in Canada and the USA for at least nine hours.
"A lot of the questions are what steps does it make sense to take," Legge says. "We could effectively gold-plate every component in the system, but the cost would mean that people can't afford the rates that would result to pay for it."
"The high-altitude nuclear-weapon-generated electromagnetic pulse is one of a small number of threats that has the potential to hold our society seriously at risk," concluded a 2008 EMP Commission report headed by William Graham, a former science adviser to President Reagan.
The terror effect
In the nuclear scenario, the detonation of an atomic bomb anywhere from 25 to 500 miles high electrifies, or ionizes, the atmosphere about 25 miles up, triggering a series of electromagnetic pulses. The pulse's reach varies with the size of the bomb, the height of its blast and design.
Gingrich last year cited the EMP Commission report in warning, "One weapon of this kind that went off over Omaha would eliminate most of the electrical production in the United States."
But some take issue with that.
"You would really need something the size of a Soviet H-bomb to have effects that cross many states," Butt says. The massive Starfish Prime blast, he notes, was at least 70 times more powerful than the atomic bomb detonated over Hiroshima in 1945, and it may have blown out streetlights but it left the grid in Hawaii intact.
One complication for rogue nations or terrorists contemplating a high-altitude nuclear blast is that such an attack requires a missile to take the weapon at least 25 miles high to trigger the electromagnetic pulse. For nations, such a launch would invite massive nuclear retaliation from the USA's current stockpile of 5,000 warheads, many of them riding in submarines far from any pulse effects.
Any nation giving a terror group an atomic weapon and missile would face retaliation, Butt and others note, as nuclear forensics capabilities at the U.S. national labs would quickly trace the origins of the bomb, Butt says. "It would be suicide."
Super solar storm
On the solar front, the big fear is a solar super storm, a large, fast, coronal mass ejection with a magnetic field that lines up with an orientation perfectly opposite the Earth's own magnetic field, says solar physicist Bruce Tsurutani of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
Tsuritani and other solar physicists view such an event as inevitable in the next 10 to 100 years.
"It has to be the perfect storm," Tsuratani says.
"We are almost guaranteed a very large solar storm at some point, but we are talking about a risk over decades," Butt says. Three power grids gird the continental U.S. — one crossing 39 Eastern states, one for 11 Western states and one for Texas.
In June, national security analyst Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists described congressional debate over power-grid security as "a somewhat jarring mix of prudent anticipation and extravagant doomsday warnings."
Although the physics underlying the geomagnetic and nuclear pulses are fundamentally the same, they have different solutions. A geomagnetic storm essentially produces a long-building surge dangerous to power lines and large transformers. A nuclear blast produces three waves of pulses.
Limiting the risk from the geomagnetic-storm-type threat involves stockpiling large transformers and installing dampers, essentially lightning rods, to dump surges into the ground from the grid. Even if such steps cost billions, the numbers come out looking reasonable compared with the $119 billion that a 2005 Electric Power Research Institute report estimated was the total nationwide cost of normal blackouts every year.
"EMP is one of a small number of threats that can hold our society at risk of catastrophic consequences," Graham testified to a congressional committee last year, endorsing such mitigation steps.
Stephen Younger, former head of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, last year argued against the catastrophic scenarios in his book, The Bomb, suggesting the effects of a pulse would be more random, temporary and limited than Graham and others suggest.
The June NERC report essentially calls for more study of the problem, warning of excessive costs to harden too much equipment against the nuclear risk. "If there are nuclear bombs exploding, we have lots of really, really big problems besides the power grid," Legge says.