One of the favorite genres of sci-fi writers and movie directors is the post-apocalypse. Typical trappings of a post-apocalyptic world are the lack of industrialization, small agrarian communities, no electrification, and a return to forms of feudalism. Such societies are called dystopias.
A dystopia — the opposite of a utopia — is a place in which people lead dehumanized and often fearful lives or in which everything is unpleasant or bad, typically totalitarian or environmentally degraded. The popular TV show The Walking Dead is dystopian, as is the new show Revolution.
This week we had a preview of dystopia, in the aftermath of what is now called “Superstorm Sandy.” Consider the reports and videos from New Jersey and New York. Millions were without power, light, gas, shelter in dropping temperatures, and any form of transportation or communication. There were reports of looting. To protect their homes and stores in Coney Island, the New York Post reports, “several residents were loading up their guns, sharpening their machetes and brandishing other deadly weapons.” This is The Walking Dead without the zombies.
This mayhem was caused by nature, but what if it was caused by man? Post-nuclear holocausts have been popular in literature, movies, and TV where thermonuclear devices destroy both life and property through both the force of the explosion and through radiation.
Radiation from thermonuclear devices leaves the impact area contaminated. But what if you could create a weapon that could incapacitate all devices which require electricity? No electricity generation, no cars, trucks, airplanes, railroads, commercial shipping, watches, computers, communications devices, modern manufacturing, food processing, mining, etc. You would have the Sandy aftermath on a vast scale, dystopia on steroids.
In fact, war planners have long dreamed of, or imagined how to defend against, electromagnetic pulse or EMP, a burst of electromagnetic radiation triggered by high energy explosions such as a nuclear explosion, which produces damaging current and voltage surges. A nuclear warhead detonated hundreds of kilometers above the Earth’s surface is called a HEMP (high-altitude EMP) device. Effects of a HEMP device depend on a very large number of factors, including the altitude of the detonation, energy yield, gamma ray output, interactions with the Earth’s magnetic field, and electromagnetic shielding of targets.
According to an Internet primer of the Federation of American Scientists, “The pulse can easily span continent-sized areas, and this radiation can affect systems on land, sea, and air.”
Congress was so concerned about the effects of an EMP attack on the United States that in 2001 it established the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from EMP attack. The EMP Commission has released a number of reports, including a 2004 Executive Report and a 2008 Critical National Infrastructures Report. According to the 2004 report’s abstract, “Our vulnerability is increasing daily as our use of and dependence on electronics continues to grow. The impact of EMP is asymmetric in relation to potential protagonists who are not as dependent on modern electronics.”
A determined adversary can achieve an EMP attack capability without having a high level of sophistication, according to the report. Terrorists or state actors that possess relatively unsophisticated missiles armed with nuclear weapons may well calculate that, instead of destroying a city or military base, they may obtain the greatest political-military utility from carrying out or threatening an EMP attack. The report identifies North Korea and Iran as rogue states that may be developing EMP capability.
That warning was issued in 2004. Since then North Korea has tested nuclear devices and had developed long-range missiles. Iran, learning from North Korean strategy and technological knowhow, is on its way to obtaining nuclear weapons and missile delivery systems.
In an interview this past June, Dr. Peter Vincent Pry, executive director of the successor to the EMP Commission, warned,
Given the current state of U.S. unpreparedness, after a nuclear EMP attack that collapses the electric grid and other critical infrastructures, the U.S. might never recover. The Congressional EMP Commission — that investigated the EMP threat for nearly a decade and produced the most definitive analysis of the threat — estimated that within one year of a nuclear EMP attack, about two-thirds of the United States population, about 200 million Americans, would likely perish from starvation, disease, and societal collapse. Iranian military writings openly describe making an EMP attack to eliminate the United States as an actor on the world stage.
To Iran, the United States is the Great Satan and Israel is the Little Satan. A nuclear Iran might make Sandy look like a walk in the park.