Popular Science should remove Obama defense adviser Peter Singer from its editorial board. He has degraded the magazine, promoting a political and error-filled article by Kelsey Atherton "GOP Platform Vows To Protect U.S. From A Fantasy Weapon: An EMP Is An Empty Threat" (July 11, 2016).
The Republican platform deserves high praise for promising to protect our nation from the existential threat from an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack: "A single nuclear weapon detonated at high altitude over this country would collapse our electrical grid and other critical infrastructures and endanger the lives of millions . . . With North Korea in possession of nuclear missiles and Iran close to having them, EMP is no longer a theoretical concern — it is a real threat."
Every major U.S. government study agrees an EMP attack would have catastrophic consequences and the nation must be protected. For example, the Congressional EMP Commission, comprising the foremost experts in the Free World, warned in 2004: "Several potential adversaries have or can acquire the capability to attack the United States with a high-altitude nuclear weapon-generated electromagnetic pulse (EMP). A determined adversary can achieve an EMP attack capability without having a high level of sophistication . . . It has the capability to produce significant damage to critical infrastructure and thus to the very fabric of U.S. society, as well as to the ability of the United States and Western nations to project influence and military power."
Twelve years after the EMP Commission's warning, Peter Singer, interviewed by Matthew Gault ("The Overrated Threat From Electromagnetic Pulses," War Is Boring, July 24, 2016) is still so ignorant about the fundamentals of EMP that he dismisses the threat as a "joke" and "laughable."
Fortunately, the Obama Administration has not listened to the likes of Peter Singer on the EMP threat. Obama's Defense Department is currently spending nearly $1 billion to further harden the North American Aerospace Defense (NORAD) command against a nuclear EMP attack from North Korea and other actors.
Errors of fact and analysis by Singer, Atherton, and Gault include:
- They do not appear to understand a high-altitude EMP attack would happen exo-atmospherically, in outer space, so there would be no blast, thermal, or fallout effects on the ground, only the EMP. So their arguments that blast and other nuclear effects would be worse than EMP are nonsensical.
- They wrongly assert a high-yield thermonuclear weapon is necessary for EMP attack. The EMP Commission found any nuclear weapon, even a primitive weapon that terrorists might build, is a potential EMP threat. Indeed, the greatest EMP threat is from super-EMP nuclear weapons, that are very low-yield, designed to produce gamma rays that generate the EMP effect, not make a big explosion. The EMP Commission, South Korean military intelligence, and China have warned that North Korea probably has super-EMP weapons.
- They wrongly assert there is a "sweet spot" located "in the atmosphere" which altitude for an EMP attack can be discovered only by extensive nuclear testing. Any nuclear detonation at an altitude of 30 kilometers or higher will generate EMP.
- They wrongly assert EMP effects are unreliable and have never been tested. In fact, EMP and its effects have been tested for over 50 years and are better understood than the efficacy of cyber warfare.
- They wrongly assert a sophisticated intercontinental missile is necessary for an EMP attack. In fact, an EMP attack can be made launching a short-range missile off a freighter (as practiced by Iran), by private jet doing a zoom climb, or even by balloon.
- They wrongly assert "North Korea does not yet . . . possess a missile that can carry a nuclear weapon . . . to the United States." In fact, the Defense Department 2015 report Military and Security Developments Involving the Democratic People's Republic of North Korea warns that North Korea now has nuclear-armed mobile ICBMs, the KN-08 and KN-14, that can strike the United States. Moreover, North Korea has orbiting over the U.S. two satellites on trajectories optimized to evade U.S. early warning radars and National Missile Defenses that could generate EMP fields over North America, if they are nuclear-armed.
- They wrongly assert that no nation would perform an EMP attack because it would be thermonuclear war. Yet Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran in military doctrine and exercises regard EMP attack as part of an all-out cyber warfare operation that could achieve decisive victory without nuclear war.
The Obama administration defense officials acknowledge in congressional hearings and press reports that they are working on new cyber and EMP weapons to preempt launching of nuclear missiles by potential adversaries.
In a case of the blind leading the blind, Singer and company rely for their EMP "expertise" on the opinions of non-expert Yousaf Butt, who published two erroneous articles on EMP in Space Review (2010). For a thorough rebuttal, see the Space Review article by Dr. William Radasky and me, "Rebuttal to The EMP Threat: Fact, Fiction, and Response" (July 6, 2010).
Peter Vincent Pry is executive director of the Task Force on National and Homeland Security. He served in the Congressional EMP Commission, the Congressional Strategic Posture Commission, the House Armed Services Committee, and the CIA. He is author of "Blackout Wars." For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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