How it could happen -- and how worried we should be.
Presages about the defeat or even the destruction of the U.S. by terrorists and rogue leaders are usually dismissed as bombastic rhetoric or self-induced illusions. The West’s enemies, however, are working towards the means to make their prophecies come true. Electro-Magnetic Pulse attacks with nuclear weapons detonated at high altitude and cyber warfare can enable ostensibly weak adversaries to deliver a crippling blow far greater than 9/11.
The discussion about nuclear terrorism generally focuses on the potential for a bomb to be set off on the ground or at low-altitude with a ballistic missile. Such an event would kill hundreds of thousands of people and cause trillions in damage, but would not paralyze the country. However, detonating a nuclear weapon at high-altitude can do much greater damage. The explosion at a high-altitude sets off what is called an Electro-Magnetic Pulse (EMP) that can fry all electronic devices for hundreds or thousands of miles depending upon where it happens.
The Congressional EMP Threat Commission, chaired by Dr. William Graham, the former science advisor to President Reagan, concluded that the threat is not fantasy. “I’d have to say that 70 to 90 percent of the population would not be sustainable after this kind of attack,” Graham said. He describes post-EMP life as “something you might imagine life to be like around the late 1800s but with several times the population we had in those days, and without the ability of the country to support and sustain all those people.”
One of the most appealing aspects of an EMP is that it limits America’s retaliatory capacity and can be done with relatively little fingerprints. A missile carrying a nuclear warhead can be launched from one of the thousands of vessels that come to America’s shores every day. This gives the U.S. minimal time to detect and respond and minimizes the traces that can be used to identify the attacker’s identity, especially if terrorists are used as a cover. As more countries develop nuclear weapons capabilities, it becomes even more difficult to pinpoint the culprit. The marketing of the Russian Club-K missile system that enables missiles to be transported on almost any mobile platform makes this threat all the more pressing.
It should not be surprising that Iran is actively rehearsing how to carry out an EMP attack given these advantages. An Iranian military journal reviews how vulnerable the West is to such an attack, stating that “If the world's industrial countries fail to devise effective ways to defend themselves against dangerous electronic assaults then they will disintegrate within a few years. American soldiers would not be able to find food to eat nor would they be able to fire a single shot."
The Iranian military appears to be simulating EMP attacks. They are test-launching Scud missiles from ships and setting off Shahab-3 medium-range ballistic missiles in the air. Normal tests are considered “successful” when they hit a specific target, but the mid-air test was said to have achieved its goal. Dr. Graham says that the only explanation for this is that Iran’s goal was to practice an EMP attack.
The catastrophic potential of such an attack is not capturing the attention of America’s elected officials. Rep. John McHugh (R-N.Y.) said that “No one seems to be concerned about it,” noticing that very few members of the House Armed Service Committee had bothered to even attend the hearing in July 2008.
Dr. Peter Vincent Pry, who also sat on the EMP Threat Commission and is a top nuclear expert, says that the 300 transformers that are most vital to sustaining the power grid can be secured from an EMP attack for $200-400 million. If an attack happens and those units are destroyed, he believes it will take at least one year to get the grid operational again. With an investment of about $20 billion, the entire grid could be secured, he says.
Another method that can be used to cripple the U.S. is a cyber attack. Richard Clarke, a senior counter-terrorism advisor under the Clinton and Bush Administrations, has written a book that warns that an “electronic Pearl Harbor” could bring the country to its knees in 15 minutes. He says that adversaries of the U.S. are already inserting “logic bombs” into critical systems that can allow them to hijacked or disabled in the future.
Cyber security expert Andrew Colarik, a lecturer on Information Systems at the University of Auckland, says that our vulnerabilities mean we could be “transformed periodically into a third-world country by means of digital attacks.”
Here, too, enemies of the U.S. are making strides. The former Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair told the Senate that important computers are routinely hacked into and that cyber attacks are happening on an “unprecedented scale with extraordinary sophistication.” One government report from November 2008 warned that China’s cyber warfare capabilities had become so advanced that the U.S. “may be unable to counteract or even detect the efforts” and that a successful cyber offensive “could paralyze the United States.”
North Korea is placing a particularly emphasis on cyber warfare and has even carried out cyber attacks on South Korean and American government websites. A study in 2006 concluded that North Korea could potentially disable the Pacific Command’s computers and do major damage to the continental U.S. The North Korean regime’s cyber warfare school trains 100 new hackers for the government every year. The elite unit is said to rival the CIA’s own hackers and operate from a luxury hotel in China.
The U.S. cannot look at a country’s military or economy alone in assessing the threat it poses. The most important factor is intent. New ways of carrying out mass destruction like cyber warfare and EMP detonations means a hostile regime can do incalculable damage with a single nuclear-armed missile or team of hackers. Once such capabilities are acquired, all that stands between the U.S. and paralysis is one directive from a rogue or terrorist leader.