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24 Feb 2024
Greg Ganske

NextImg:Why Did the Threat of an EMP From Space Throw DC Into a Tizzy?

Last week House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Turner issued a cryptic warning that Russia is developing a new space-based nuclear weapon designed to knock out American satellites. Turner called on President Biden to declassify information of a “serious national security threat.” Coordinator For Strategic Communications at the NSC John Kirby told reporters that the weapon is “related to an anti-satellite capability that Russia is developing.” Putin denied this.

If such a weapon detonated in satellite fields it would not only affect military satellites but also civilian satellites of all nations and cause devastating world wide communication problems. However, it could also cause what is called an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) of energy that would fry electric circuits on earth.

Imagine the effects on a large segment of the United States this type of “E-bomb” would cause. It wouldn’t immediately cause loss of life (unless you are wearing a pacemaker or have electric implants) but it would paralyze communication, transportation, power plants, water pumping stations. Besides bringing down the power grid it would degrade and destroy devices like car engine components, cell phone transmitters, transformers and backup generator systems. Food would rot, you might be without water or plumbing, the financial system would be in ruins. Society would break down. We could be back to 1890.

Scientists have known about the effects of EMPs caused by nuclear devices in the upper atmosphere since a series of nuclear tests in the Pacific starting in 1958. In 1962 a test by the United States launched from the Johnston Atoll in the Pacific was particularly damaging. A 400 kiloton nuclear bomb was exploded 250 miles in the atmosphere and the EMP destroyed electronics in Hawaii 900 miles away and radio reception in Australia for 18 hours. It disrupted phone service and destroyed half a dozen orbiting satellites and damaged others. A year later the United States and the Soviet Union, both afraid of the possibility of these side effects of atmospheric nuclear explosions, signed the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty prohibiting space nuclear devices.

The vast majority of the public is not aware of this threat. I certainly wasn’t prior to 1995 when, as a newly elected member of Congress, I was assigned to the Energy and Commerce Committee with jurisdiction over the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC). Back then Speaker Newt Gingrich, Senator Jon Kyl, and Congressman Trent Frank began to warn of the danger of an EMP. The godfather of this issue was Maryland Congressman Roscoe Bartlett, a somewhat eccentric mustachioed Ph.D, who made this his number one Congressional concern and even helped found an “EMP caucus.”

Since then the US has become even more computerized and power grids more sophisticated and vulnerable to EMP attacks.

After the Pacific atmospheric nuclear tests showed the potential of EMP weapons both Russia and the US began research on these weapons. Any country with nuclear weapons—the US, Russia, France, Great Britain, Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea—is aware of an “e-bomb” capability. It is rumored that our own national labs have a working version. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld when asked whether one would be used against Iraq in Desert Storm answered, “You never know.”

Putting an EMP weapon in orbit as the intelligence report suggests Russia is considering would, of course, be a violation of the treaty.

Making a “e-bomb” is not difficult: fill a tube with explosives, wrap it in copper wire and encase it in a metal tube. When the explosives are fired with a nuclear device the magnetic field is compressed which produces a burst of electromagnetic energy. A large enough device could generate up to two billion watts. It is reported that Britain’s Matra Dae Dynamics has even produced an artillery shell that generates an EMP wave that is capable of knocking out electrical systems for several miles.

An EMP device could be loaded on a cruise missile and fired into the atmosphere from many platforms and locations. The difference with having a satellite circling with this device is the precipitous attack it could deliver with little warning. Is Putin betting that the threat of a nuclear explosion in space would be considered differently from the threat of destruction of an American city?

It is not reassuring to me when John Kirby tells reporters that, “We are not talking about a weapon that can be used to attack human beings or cause physical destruction on earth.” It is estimated that millions of deaths in the US would ultimately result from an EMP disrupting our grid and electric devices.

So what can we do to reduce this threat? Our military nuclear silos are undoubtedly protected by what are called Faraday cages to redirect EMPs into the ground. Unfortunately most civilian electric facilities, including our nation’s 108 nuclear power plants, are not so protected. We need a huge investment in grid-hardening, to bury power and transmission lines, and to use technology to protect grid systems. We need to invest in backup systems. The recent $14 billion investment in the US energy grid focuses on improving security systems from cyber attacks but doesn’t include protections from EMP attack.

Policy wise, we have had no nuclear war under the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). It should be made clear to adversaries that a significant EMP attack would be treated the same as a direct nuclear attack.

Representative Bartlett now resides off the grid in West Virginia in a cabin that lacks electricity, phone service, and municipal plumbing. If we don’t want to assume this lifestyle, we need to take the threat of a Russian satellite circling over the US with nuclear capability for EMP attack very seriously.

Greg Ganske, MD, is a retired surgeon and Lt Col in the US Army Medical Reserve. He servers Iowa in Congress from 1995-2003. After Congress he returned to his plastic surgery practice and cared for women with breast cancer, children with cleft lips, farmers with hand injuries and burn patients.