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U.S. Threatened With EMP Attack  By Kenneth R. Timmerman
A new commission will examine how to defend the U.S. against a nuclear electromagnetic-pulse attack
that could destroy all our electronic and communications systems. More..


Congress became so disturbed by those first studies that it mandated creation of a new blue-ribbon panel, whose members Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld soon will select, to study U.S. vulnerability to EMP attack. “The list of those selected for the nine-member panel is sitting on Donald Rumsfeld’s desk,” congressional sources tell Insight. “We expect this to be announced in very short order.”

Back in 1990, when he still was secretary of defense, Dick Cheney appeared before a House Armed Services subcommittee with some surprising news, given the euphoria generated by the destruction of the Berlin Wall. “The Soviet Union is going to disappear,” he announced. “But the threat isn’t.”

Last week, recalling Cheney’s warning, Rep. Jim Saxton, R-N.J., told a field hearing of that same committee, held at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in northern Maryland, that the “technology is now here” to bring America’s way of life to an end.

That technology, said Saxton and Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md., is electromagnetic pulse, known by the initials EMP. Discovered in 1962 during the last U.S. nuclear test in the atmosphere and code-named “Starfish Prime,” EMP long has been recognized as posing a military danger as great as the nuclear weapons that generate it. Indeed, these powerful radio waves can disable virtually all advanced weapons systems as if they were the surge from a lightning bolt striking your home and frying your computer.

Saxton first held hearings on EMP in 1998 when he was chairman of the Joint Economic Committee (see “E-Zapper Could Break the Bank,” May 25, 1998).

Now, further attempts are being made to probe how attack by an EMP weapon might affect America’s civilian infrastructure. And, according to government scientists interviewed by Insight, the initial analyses of highly classified studies under way at Lawrence Livermore Nuclear Laboratory in Livermore, Calif., and in other government labs are devastating.

The new commission will examine the threat of EMP weapons, who has them and what damage they can do. Then it will make recommendations to Congress as to how best to protect U.S. military systems and our civilian infrastructure against massive EMP attack.

According to R. Alan Kehs, who heads the Army Research Laboratory at Aberdeen, “No one really knows how susceptible large-scale commercial electronic systems might be to a concerted electronic attack.” But increased U.S. reliance on computers and nationwide communications systems touching virtually every aspect of our daily lives has made the United States a target of choice for electronic terrorists and potential enemies.

“A major EMP attack would lead us back a century in our technology,” Bartlett tells Insight. “And the technology of 100 years ago couldn’t support the population we have today. Just imagine our country with no power and no communications. The only person you could talk to would be the person next to you. For any meaningful time we would have total chaos.”

The entire U.S. market system is at risk. America’s commercial infrastructure is all but completely reliant on advanced computers, which can be readily disrupted or even destroyed by a nuclear EMP attack. And now smaller non-nuclear versions of that technology, known as high-powered microwave (HPM) and radio-frequency (RF) weapons, have proliferated around the world. They readily are available to potential terrorists, either directly from Russia, which long led the world in developing these technologies, or in more rudimentary forms from off-the-shelf components.

Under the guidance of Saxton and Bartlett, Congress last year appropriated $4 million to study the potential effect of RF weapons on U.S. commercial infrastructure — banks, power plants, factories, offices, the commercial telephone network, inventory maintenance, the oil and gas delivery system — and computers that everywhere make life easier and work more efficient.

As part of that study, the Pentagon hired David Schriner, a California scientist who says he “grew up building things from scratch,” to put together a portable RF weapon using commercially available parts and widely known engineering principles.

Under a $950,000 Pentagon contract (which Schriner joked forced him to triple his four-man business to accommodate Pentagon accounting requirements) the scientist tinkered and soon put together two crude weapons. The smaller one was designed so it could be broken down into two parcels and shipped by United Parcel Service from one terrorist to another. The larger was built into a converted Volkswagen bus. Both used ordinary spark plugs to generate the pulse, commercially available coils, common capacitors and simple copper tape. “We wanted to show that by backyard means a weapons system could be built that would have some effectiveness against our civilian infrastructure,” Schriner explained during an April 30 demonstration at the Aberdeen Proving Ground.

One incident that made U.S. military planners take notice of the threat occurred a few years ago when a U.S. Comanche helicopter flying out of the now-decommissioned Griffis Air Force base in Rome, N.Y., took out the entire navigational-aids system at the nearby commercial airport. The helicopter had generated a low-level RF pulse during a radar test “which ended up totally disrupting the global positioning system (GPS) being used to land commercial aircraft in Albany, New York, for a couple of weeks,” reveals James F. O’Bryon, deputy director of the Pentagon’s Operational Test and Evaluation Live-Fire Testing Center, which is studying the impact of EMP and RF weapons on U.S. military systems.

The military began testing Schriner’s prototype weapons last year in an effort to determine the vulnerability of common electronic devices such as desktop computers, medical pumps and monitors, home-alarm systems and police scanners. In tests so far, Schriner’s devices have temporarily disrupted all of them.

A high-powered weapon used by a terrorist could have a far greater impact than freezing computers or turning off intravenous pumps. To illustrate his point, Schriner presented a fictional case. Consider:

“During the peak of a busy trading day, an EMP device is pointed at the New York Stock Exchange’s main computer center from a van traveling down Wall Street. After a few seconds of emitting electromagnetic pulses, the computers in the center begin to scramble. After a few more, they shut down completely and some computers are physically damaged. During the chaos that ensues instantly all over the world, billions of dollars are lost.”

Could terrorists really shut down Wall Street? The truth is, no one knows until they try. “These devices present a tactical threat that could create a significant, at least localized disruption,” says Rep. John Hostettler, R-Ind. A terrorist would have to target a specific bank, hospital or office block to do serious damage.

Far greater is the threat from a nuclear EMP attack detonated above the country without the missile ever striking our territory and which could make the United States go dark, silent and cold for months. “What would we do in America if Y2K really came to be?” asks Hostettler. “With an EMP laydown, we’re talking about that. Would we have the political will to retaliate?”

Twenty years ago, only the Soviet Union had the capability to launch an EMP attack on the United States by exploding a nuclear warhead 500 kilometers (310 miles) in space. Pentagon planners spent billions of dollars protecting U.S. military equipment against EMP during the Cold War. But during the last decade, the military has canceled many of those protection programs, alleging an end to the threat of a Soviet nuclear strike. And none of our civilian infrastructure is protected because of the high cost.

Some believe the military acted imprudently. “The threat is still there, and it can be delivered in just 30 minutes,” former nuclear-weapons designer and top EMP expert Bronius Cikotas tells Insight. “All that has changed is the intent.” Intent can be misread or change overnight, Cikotas argues, whereas “it takes years to harden our systems.”

Today, at least 10 countries are working on EMP and RF weapons, according to Cikotas. “Russia has very significant work in this area, and lots of this has propagated to other parts of the world, with scientists basically selling their work.”

“Russia’s work in this area has been the best in the world, most experts agree. Russia has the best physicists in the world when it comes to RF weapons and EMP,” says Barry Crane, a physicist and former F-4 pilot now working at the Institute for Defense Analysis who has visited Russia’s top EMP laboratories and design bureaus. “Many of their best EMP specialists are now working on contract in Communist China,” Crane tells Insight.

Chinese military planners have written frequently of their intent to wage “asymmetrical warfare” against the United States. They say this means using other weapons, such as EMP and RF weapons, to exploit U.S. vulnerabilities, rather than matching us tank for tank and plane for plane.

But other countries could attack the U.S. mainland with a high-altitude EMP blast as well, and we would have no idea who was behind the attack. “Tonight, Saddam Hussein could fire a crude nuclear warhead from a SCUD launcher hidden on a commercial cargo ship off U.S. territorial waters and shut down the entire East Coast,” Rep. Bartlett tells Insight. Bartlett is a scientist by training who holds scores of patents and is considered the top expert in Congress on the effects of EMP.

The more backward the country, the more attractive EMP becomes as a weapon against the United States, Bartlett explains. “If North Korea were to launch a missile straight up and explode a nuclear weapon 500 kilometers over their own territory, it wouldn’t do them a lot of damage because they have very little dependence on electronic systems. But it would have a devastating impact on South Korea, as well as on our 37,000 troops stationed there. With North Korea’s million soldiers, they could just walk all over us with impunity.”

Bartlett and Saxton became deeply concerned by the prospect of an EMP attack by Russia after a little-publicized meeting they and seven other members of Congress held in a Vienna, Austria, hotel in the spring of 1999 at the peak of the Kosovo crisis with a delegation from the Russian Duma, or parliament.

“We were sitting with two Russians,” Bartlett recalls, “the third-ranking Communist and Vladimir Lukin, who was Russian ambassador during Bush I and headed the Duma Foreign Affairs Commission. Lukin was very angry. He said that if they really wanted to hurt us, with no fear of retaliation, they would launch an SLBM [submarine-launched ballistic missile], detonate a nuclear weapon high over our country, and shut down our power grid and our communications for six months.”

Bartlett says, “This was a much more serious threat than the Chinese threatening Los Angeles or New York during the Taiwan Strait crisis in 1996. We might be able to do without Los Angeles or New York, but it would be very difficult to live without power, communications and computers anywhere in America.”

Cikotas, a scientist who has been compared in stature to Edward Teller, still recalls when he first discovered EMP in July 1962 during the last U.S. nuclear test conducted in the atmosphere. That test involved the detonation of a 1.5-megaton weapon at an altitude of 400 kilometers (248 miles) over Johnston Island in the Pacific. “Eight hundred miles away in Hawaii, streetlights went out within seconds,” Cikotas says. “Fuses failed on Oahu, telephone service was disrupted on Kauai and the power system went down on Hawaii itself. What caused it was the high-powered electromagnetic pulse set off by the nuclear explosion, which hit Hawaii like a lightning bolt.”

All during the Cold War, the Soviet Union optimized its nuclear weapons to emit EMP pulse waves. In the event of war, Soviet targeting officers had worked out detailed schemes to explode nuclear weapons high in the atmosphere over the North Pole and work down over America’s East Coast in waves, Bartlett tells Insight.

“An EMP laydown, starting at the Pole, would sequentially blind the United States, making it impossible for us to retaliate,” Bartlett explains. “A nuclear EMP attack would bring us to our knees as a nation.”

And making matters worse, the United States is totally unprepared, despite repeated warnings in recent years. In early May, as RF weapons were being demonstrated in Aberdeen, President George W. Bush announced his administration’s intent to build a national missile-defense system. Protecting against an EMP strike will be just as important and is one more vulnerability bequeathed to Bush from the Clinton/Gore era. So serious is the national-security situation inherited by Bush’s team, say Pentagon insiders, that the ongoing strategic review “has become a rattlesnake hunt.”   2023