Tommy Waller at the Center for Security Policy posted an article today about a recent media story that totally misinformed the public. The media story in question was a two-and-a-half-minute segment on an NPR show discussing the threat of an Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) strike from North Korea.
Exactly what is an EMP strike and how does it work? Our electrical grid, satellites, computers, etc. all depend on an even flow of electricity. If you disrupt that flow and burn out a significant amount of the equipment that distributes that electricity in the process, you can cause some serious problems to America. It could be months before food, water, gasoline, natural gas, electricity, etc., could be delivered to the people impacted by an EMP. Detonating a nuclear bomb in the atmosphere will disrupt the electronics for a large area. There is some discussion about how large that area would be, but think of the impact of wiping out the electrical power and the equipment that distributes it in a large section of America.
A website called future science details a brief history of the impact of an EMP:
On July 1962, a 1.44 megaton United States nuclear test in space, 400 kilometers (250 miles) above the mid-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. The detonation time was July 9, 1962 at 09:00:09 Coordinated Universal Time, (which was 8 July, Honolulu time, at nine seconds after 11 p.m.). The coordinates of the detonation were 16 degrees, 28 minutes North latitude, 169 degrees, 38 minutes West longitude.7 The actual weapon yield was very close to the design yield, which has been described by various sources at different values in the very narrow range of 1.4 to 1.45 megatons.
The Thor missile carrying the Starfish Prime warhead actually reached a maximum height of about 1100 kilometers (just over 680 miles), and the warhead was detonated on its downward trajectory when it had fallen to the programmed altitude of 400 kilometers. The nuclear warhead detonated at 13 minutes and 41 seconds after liftoff of the Thor missile from Johnston Island.9
Starfish Prime also made EMP effects known to the public by causing electrical damage in Hawaii, about 1,445 kilometers (898 miles) away from the detonation point, knocking out about 300 streetlights, setting off numerous burglar alarms and damaging a telephone company microwave link.7
Starfish Prime was the first successful test in the series of United States high-altitude nuclear tests in 1962 known as Operation Fishbowl. The subsequent Operation Fishbowl tests gathered more data on the high-altitude EMP phenomenon, especially the Bluegill Triple Prime and Kingfish test of October, 1962.8
The EMP damage of the Starfish Prime test was quickly repaired because of the ruggedness (compared to today) of the electrical and electronic infrastructure of Hawaii in 1962. Realization of the potential impacts of high-altitude nuclear EMP became more apparent to some scientists and engineers during the 1970s as more sensitive solid-state electronics began to come into widespread use.
The relatively small magnitude of the Starfish Prime EMP in Hawaii (about 5600 volts/meter) and the relatively small amount of damage done (for example, only 1 to 3 percent of streetlights extinguished)10 led some scientists to believe, in the early days of EMP research, that the problem might not be as significant as was later realized. Newer calculations7 showed that if the Starfish Prime warhead had been detonated over the northern continental United States, the magnitude of the EMP would have been much larger (22 to 30 kilovolts/meter) because of the greater strength of the Earth’s magnetic field over the United States, as well as the different orientation of the Earth’s magnetic field at high latitudes. These new calculations, combined with the accelerating reliance on EMP-sensitive microelectronics, heightened awareness that the EMP threat could be a very significant problem.
As late as the 1980s, some distinguished scientist published articles which cast doubt on the magnitude of the E1-EMP. Those scientists did not have access to some critical classified information that has subsequently been declassifed. This primary mistake that these scientists made was apparently a large underestimation of the coherence of the pulse. The initial electrons are knocked out of atmospheric molecules almost simultaneously over a large region. The electrons then spiral almost simultaneously around the Earth’s magnetic field lines. This results in a very narrow pulse of extremely high field strength, but one that last for less than a microsecond. Each high-energy electronic emits only a very weak pulse, however a typical nuclear weapon produces about 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 ten septillion) of these high-energy electrons all spiraling around the geomagnetic field lines simultaneously.
We have the information showing the dangers of an EMP. Although much of that information is classified, enough of it is available to scientists for them to understand the risks.
However, not all scientists are paying attention.
The Center for Security Policy article reports:
At 5:10AM ET on 27 April 2017, the Morning Edition program at National Public Radio (NPR) broadcast a segment titled “The North Korean Electromagnetic Pulse Threat, Or Lack Thereof.” An audio recording of this segment can be found here: http://www.npr.org/2017/04/27/525833275/the-north-korean-electromagnetic-pulse-threat-or-lack-thereof
The 2 minute 26 second segment was in response to an interview of Former CIA Director R. James Woolsey from 26 April, where Ambassador Woolsey discussed the EMP threat posed by North Korea: http://www.npr.org/2017/04/26/525675203/former-cia-director-james-woolsey-on-trumps-first-100-days)
In the 27 April broadcast, NPR’s science editor – Geoff Brumfiel – gave prominent treatment to Jeffrey Lewis of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. Mr. Lewis not only dismissed the North Korean EMP threat but ridiculed it by laughing out loud at the comments of a former Director of the CIA discussing a real, present, and existential threat to the nation.
Mr. Lewis, who claims to be a nuclear expert, has been denigrating EMP for the last 6 years. Aside from his brief time as an intern the Pentagon, he has never served in the DOD or intelligence community and his formal education is in policy studies and philosophy rather than engineering or nuclear weapons design. Yet NPR’s editors thought it appropriate to champion not only his “analysis” but his obtuse laughter at a sobering subject that is one of the most important of our time. It is clear by the way Geoff Brumfiel edited this broadcast that he sought to denigrate not only the topic of EMP, but also James Woolsey, the U.S. Military, and the U.S. Congress – since the Ambassador has warned for years about the EMP threat and the DOD and Congress have appropriated billions of dollars to protect America’s strategic forces against it.
This is an example of irresponsible journalism.
The article at the Center for Security Policy continues:
Evidently, National Public Radio, an organization whose operating expenses are paid in part by the U.S. taxpayer, considers it appropriate to promote ridicule of anyone concerned with the threat from Elecromagnetic Pulse, when the nation’s most informed authorities on EMP consider it to be a real, present, and existential threat to the country and it’s population.
In response to this abject failure in journalism, Center for Security Policy founder and president – Frank J. Gaffney Jr. – recently authored a formal letter to Senator Roy Blunt and Congressmen Tom Coles, who serve on their chambers’ respective Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittees. This letter calls on these men and these subcommittees to hold NPR accountable for dereliction of its public trust.
We encourage all Americans who are concerned about EMP to join Frank, The Center for Security Policy, and The Secure the Grid Coalition in holding to account National Public Radio. We encourage you to inform your own elected representatives of this journalistic malfeasance and to confront NPR directly through messages to its Ombudsman and Management by submitting your own comments at the following link:
The article at the Center for Security Policy reminds us that we need to beef up our missile defense programs to protect us from this threat. We also need to remember that when North Korea (or Iran) blows up a missile in mid-flight, it may not be an accident–it may be a practice run.