Green Room

The Pulse of the Axis of Evil

posted at 10:33 pm on March 9, 2011 by

Nuclear electromagnetic pulse weapons (NEMPs): In a single explosive EMP flash, detonated 400-500 km above the surface and thus impervious to most of our ballistic missile defenses (BMDs), we could lose nearly the entire communications network — including broadcast television and radio, cable and satellite channels, shortwave and microwave broadcast, and cell phones (which are simply UHF radio phones); all modern unshielded electronic devices — including computer microprocessors, the internet, hard drives, video- and audiotape, televisions, radio receivers, radar installations, missiles that use sophisticated guidance systems, and microprocessor implants in cars, microwave ovens, thermostats, and the like (some vacuum-tube technology would be spared); and even the nationwide power grid.

All it takes is an enemy ruthless enough, and little-enough concerned about retaliation, to get his hands on such a device, mount it on a missile, and “pull the trigger.”

And according to ABC News, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is just this close to developing an NEMP; and North Korea has already used non-nuclear electromagnetic pulse weapons (NNEMPs) against American and South Korean forces in the Korean peninsula… and shows interest in exporting such weapons to radical Islamist countries and organizations:

The North is believed to be nearing completion of an electromagnetic pulse bomb that, if exploded 25 miles above ground would cause irreversible damage to electrical and electronic devices such as mobile phones, computers, radio and radar, experts say.

“We assume they are at a considerably substantial level of development,” Park Chang-kyu of the Agency for Defense Development said at a briefing to the parliament Monday.

Park confirmed that South Korea has also developed an advanced electronic device that can be deployed in times of war.

The current attempts to interfere with GPS transmissions are coming from atop a modified truck-mounted Russian device. Pyongyang reportedly imported the GPS jamming system from Russia in early 2000 and has since developed two kinds of a modified version. It has also in recent years handed out sales catalogs of them to nations in the Middle East, according to South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo.

(This post is dedicated to all those on the Left — and the “Realists” on the Right — who mocked George W. Bush for including North Korea with Iran and Iraq in his original “Axis of Evil” speech.)

Detonating an NEMP high above North America would devastate not only power and communications but the economy (obliterating internet-based financial transactions and electronically stored financial data), transportation (disrupting electronic monitoring and control of everything from traffic signals to freight-train switching to commercial air traffic control), and even our military, much of which relies heavily on GPS navigation and site determination — though United States forces do still train extensively in low-tech navitation and warfare. The electromagnetic pulse would wash across the entire continental United States, plus the southern part of Canada and northern Mexico, like a tidal wave of voltage-lava, melting all the circuits in its path unless specially shielded.

Such a strike would be utterly devastating, resulting in trillions of dollars in damages… and tens or hundreds of thousands of deaths, both direct (from crashes) and indirect, from loss of medical records, the inability of emergency services to respond to life-or-death situations, utility and power shutdowns, and economic dislocation. Recovery would likely take decades. And there is absolutely nothing we can do at this time to prevent or even mitigate it; shielding every electrical circuit in the U.S. heavily enough to resist an NEMP would dwarf the cost of all natural disasters and terrorist attacks of the last century combined.

A nuclear electromagnetic pulse attack starts by detonating a nuclear warhead in the high atmosphere; this produces a burst of gamma radiation, which triggers beta rays — that is, high-energy electrons moving at more than 90% the speed of light — between 20 and 40 km altitude. The gamma radiation is deflected at right angles by the Earth’s magnetic field to create an oscillating electric current in the atmosphere. And this oscillation in turn generates a pulse or burst of electromagnetic energy. [Beta-ray correction per commenter Count to 10. Thanks!]

When this EM firestorm strikes the surface, it will have a peak power density of 50,000 volts and millions of megawatts, easily enough to fry most modern transistors and microcircuits. Since the pulse from detonation to peak value takes only 5 nanoseconds (five billionths of a second), and the entire first component (E1) of the EMP effect is over at about 1 microsecond (one millionth of a second), protection technology — designed for much slower lightning strikes — generally cannot react quickly enough to save the delicate printed circuitry that run our electronic devices these days. Any modern device without thick passive shielding will likely be destroyed or severely damaged.

There are additional secondary effects of an NEMP, dubbed E2 and E3, that are respectively similar to lightning strikes (E2) and electromagnetic storms caused by very severe solar flares (E3); surge-protectors can ordinarily handle those — unless they are compromised, damaged, or destroyed first… which is exactly what phase E1 of a Nuclear Electromagnetic Pulse attack accomplishes. Thus the E2 and E3 phases are often much more devastating than are natural lightning strikes and EM storms.

So far, the North Koreans have not detonated any NEMP device; the EM pulses they have used to jam or damage our GPS and other electronic devices are non-nuclear, and their range is much more limited; but the principle is the same. NNEMP weapons (non-nuclear) use a non-nuclear method to generate the initial burst of energy, generally chemical explosives; the energy front is sent through wave-shaping circuits or microwave generators, thence through an antenna:

This is the second time North Korea has sought to interfere with military communications. Pyongyang is thought to have been behind a failure of GPS receivers on some naval and civilian aircraft during another joint military exercise in August.

South Korea’s minister of defense at that time had reported to the Congress, warning that the North poses “a fresh security threat” capable of disrupting guided bombs and missiles by sending signals over a distance of up to 60 miles.

However Russia, which sold North Korea the non-nuclear devices that it has used against South Korea and its allies (including the United States), also has an arsenal of the nuclear version; the only force we have to rely on to safeguard against North Korea getting its hands on an NEMP is the basic “decency” and “good sense” of Putin’s post-Soviet paradise. Color me unreassured.

The effect of an NEMP detonated over the United States would be catastrophic; but what would be our response? More appropriately, what are we doing to prevent it from happening in the first place?

I’m sure nuclear scientists have tackled the technological aspect of the threat; but we could also begin shielding vital systems, switches, and lines; infiltrating our own Korean-speaking and -looking agents into the DPRK to find out how far they’ve gotten, rather than overrelying upon intelligence-sharing from the Republic of Korea (South Korea); and even using backchannel communications to warn North Korea’s sponsors (mainly Russia and China) that if Kim Jong-il actually utilizes one, we will consider it to be a nuclear attack on the United States — and we will respond appropriately, both against North Korea and anyone we believe helped them. Or might have helped them.

Obviously, much of the anti-EMP research is heavily classified, and I have no idea how far we’ve gotten. Is there a wide-area techie defense against an electromagnetic pulse? But I’m far more worried about the political aspect: Simply put, I do not trust the Obama administration to do anything effective on either front. I don’t believe they are taking the threat seriously; President Barack H. Obama surely believes that his peerless “smart diplomacy” with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, coupled with his slavish kow-towing to Red China and Russia, will induce the DPRK dictator to back away from his threats to wipe America out via a nuclear EMP.

And even if Kim — or his looming successor, Kim Jong-un, a.k.a. “Lil’ Kim” — committed the unthinkable against us, what would the Obamunist do about it? He has shown himself incapable of responding to a military threat, incompetent at running a war, and averse to the point of revulsion to defending the United States or retaliating upon our attackers. More than likely the president would issue a very stern diplomatic communique through the proper channels (once radio communications, television broadcasts, word processors, and teleprompters were brought back online); file a criminal and civil complaint in the International Court of Justice at the Hague; and furiously tingle his bell.

And even more likely, that is what Kim believes Obama would do (and not do); which makes it ever so much more probable that North Korea will go right ahead and use the first NEMP they acquire against us… or at least threaten to use it unless Obama capitulates and gives Kim — well, whatever he demands, again and again. Nothing works better than nuclear blackmail, when you have an anti-American coward and weakling in the White House.

If there is a God, and if He believes we’re on His side, then let’s hope He ensures that the DPRK does not get a nuclear electromagnetic pulse weapon; at least not until we have a president who takes seriously the primary duty of the office: to protect American territory, the American people, and America itself from violent attack by foreign princes and terrorists.

Otherwise, “American exceptionalism” will take on a new and very tragic meaning.

Cross-posted on Big Lizards

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Any of you guys remember James Bond in “Goldeneye?” Yeah…that is coming closer to reality, only we won’t have anyone OhMSS to save us.

gryphon202 on March 10, 2011 at 1:26 AM

I’ll go you one better than Goldeneye,

James Cameron’s Dark Angel had terrorists doing this very thing.

Let’s not forget how many modern vehicles run with microchips. My 99 Ford Ranger and 2010 Insight both become paperweights.

We had EMP cannons proposed back in the 80′s as part of SDI. It was laughed at then. I didn’t then. If I had a garage I’d have converted it to a Faraday Cage by now.

The_Livewire on March 10, 2011 at 12:04 PM

Looking for a silver lining, our electronic printing presses are probably not shielded.

elfman on March 10, 2011 at 12:18 PM

this produces a burst of gamma radiation — that is, high-energy electrons moving at more than 90% the speed of light

Gamma radiation is photons, not electrons. However, those photons accelerate electrons (aka beta particles) to those relativistic speeds.

Count to 10 on March 10, 2011 at 12:56 PM

If I had a garage I’d have converted it to a Faraday Cage by now.

The_Livewire on March 10, 2011 at 12:04 PM

Wouldn’t help much, I’m afraid.

Count to 10 on March 10, 2011 at 12:58 PM

We had EMP cannons proposed back in the 80′s as part of SDI. It was laughed at then. I didn’t then. If I had a garage I’d have converted it to a Faraday Cage by now.

The_Livewire on March 10, 2011 at 12:04 PM

A suborbital network of one-shot EMP cannons is exactly what Goldeneye was in the movie. Life imitates art…except that life doesn’t always have a happy ending.

gryphon202 on March 10, 2011 at 9:47 PM

Good post, Dafydd. Didn’t know the non nuclear weapons had been used before. Very interesting. But what does Sosuth Korea think they are going to accomplish by using them against No Korea? Do they even have microchip based appliances and communications? (I guess if they use older Russian variants….

Because I’m pretty sure, even though the North has nuclear weapons, they haven’t the capability to mass produce much that actually works on a tremendously large scale required to outfit their army.

I still despise those guys.


Subsunk on March 11, 2011 at 8:45 AM

James Cameron’s Dark Angel had terrorists doing this very thing.

My thoughts exactly and the teaser leading to each episode always recalled how we become a third world country overnight.

A very sobering thought.

El Coqui on March 11, 2011 at 12:28 PM

This post has been promoted to

Comments have been closed on this post but the discussion continues here.

Ed Morrissey on March 13, 2011 at 1:59 PM

Brad Thor’s latest talked about this scenario.

tomas on March 13, 2011 at 10:21 AM