Iran could cripple U.S. with a single warhead using an electromagnetic pulse attack
One scenario for how Iran could threaten the U.S. homeland is through an electromagnetic pulse attack. Iran could launch a single nuclear warhead to detonate above the continental U.S. and the resulting shockwave would cause electrical systems to fail nationwide, throwing the country into chaos.
Let us be clear. A successful EMP attack on the U.S. would have a dramatic effect on the country, to say the least. Even one that only affected part of the country would cripple the economy for years. Dropping nuclear weapons on or retaliating against whoever caused the attack would not help. And an EMP attack is not far-fetched.Twice in the last eight years, in the Caspian Sea, the Iranians have tested their ability to launch ballistic missiles in a way to set off an EMP. The congressionally mandated EMP Commission, with some of America's finest scientists, has released its findings and issued two separate reports, the most recent in April, describing the devastating effects of such an attack on the U.S.The only solution to this problem is a robust, multilayered missile-defense system. The most effective layer in this system is in space, using space-based interceptors that destroy an enemy warhead in its ascent phase when it is easily identifiable, slower, and has not yet deployed decoys. We know it can work from tests conducted in the early 1990s. We have the technology. What we lack is the political will to make it a reality.
Think about this scenario: An ordinary-looking freighter ship heading toward New York or Los Angeles launches a missile from its hull or from a canister lowered into the sea. It hits a densely populated area. A million people are incinerated. The ship is then sunk. No one claims responsibility. There is no firm evidence as to who sponsored the attack, and thus no one against whom to launch a counterstrike.But as terrible as that scenario sounds, there is one that is worse. Let us say the freighter ship launches a nuclear-armed Shahab-3 missile off the coast of the U.S. and the missile explodes 300 miles over Chicago. The nuclear detonation in space creates an electromagnetic pulse (EMP).Gamma rays from the explosion, through the Compton Effect, generate three classes of disruptive electromagnetic pulses, which permanently destroy consumer electronics, the electronics in some automobiles and, most importantly, the hundreds of large transformers that distribute power throughout the U.S. All of our lights, refrigerators, water-pumping stations, TVs and radios stop running. We have no communication and no ability to provide food and water to 300 million Americans.This is what is referred to as an EMP attack, and such an attack would effectively throw America back technologically into the early 19th century. It would require the Iranians to be able to produce a warhead as sophisticated as we expect the Russians or the Chinese to possess. But that is certainly attainable. Common sense would suggest that, absent food and water, the number of people who could die of deprivation and as a result of social breakdown might run well into the millions.
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Also, Iran could punch America's soft ribs by launching an Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) attack in space. In 2001, the Rumsfeld Commission warned that the United States could face a "space Pearl Harbor." The consequences of a space Pearl Harbor would be particularly harmful to the United States given our dependence on space. As space defense analyst Robert Butterworth notes: "Far more than any other country, the U.S. depends on space for national and tactical intelligence, military operations, and civil and commercial benefits. A 'scorched space' attack…would hurt the U.S. most of all." This option is particularly salient in light of Iranian reluctance to suspend its nuclear program. Iran could elect to detonate a nuclear weapon (or multiple weapons) in space, causing an EMP. In this worst-case-scenario the mere ability to wreak havoc on U.S. satellites in orbit affords the Iranians significant leverage. The Claremont Institute's Brian Kennedy reminds us, "Twice in the last eight years, in the Caspian Sea, the Iranians have tested their ability to launch ballistic missiles in a way to set off an EMP."
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Rather than exploding the nuclear warhead in space, the Iranians could conceivably forgo space and fly an ICBM over the United States before detonating the warhead. The aforementioned EMP Commission examined the consequences of a high-altitude, terrestrial EMP attack over the continental U.S. In testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, EMP Commission Chairman William Graham said such an explosion would cause "unprecedented cascading failures of major infrastructures." Systemic failures in interdependent infrastructure sectors (e.g., transportation, emergency services, finance and banking, and water delivery) might become "mutually reinforcing until at some point the degradation of infrastructure could have irreversible effects on the country's ability to support its population." Chairman Graham also discussed the Iranian EMP threat in his testimony before Congress: "Iran has also tested high-altitude explosions of the Shahab-III, a test mode consistent with EMP attack, and described the tests as successful. Iranian military writings explicitly discuss a nuclear EMP attack that would gravely harm the United States. While the Commission does not know the intention of Iran in conducting these activities, we are disturbed by the capability that emerges when we connect the dots."
The new factor that makes one or a few nuclear warhead-carrying missiles launched into orbit much more dangerous than during the Cold War is the possibility of an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack against the critical infrastructures that are the foundation of modern societies, especially the national electric grid. Electronics are increasingly vulnerable to EMP — more than a million times more vulnerable (and, yes, also much more capable) than they were at the dawn of the age of modern electronics a half-century ago. Moore’s Law has not been kind to our electronic vulnerabilities.
Consequently, even one nuclear warhead detonated at orbital altitude over the United States would black out the national electric grid and other life-sustaining critical infrastructures for months or years by means of the electromagnetic pulse it would create. The Congressional EMP Commission assessed that a nationwide blackout lasting one year could kill nine of 10 Americans through starvation and societal collapse. Islamic State-like gangs would rule the streets.
Just such a scenario is described in Iranian military documents.
Thus, once Iran has a nuclear weapon, even a primitive one, with a small number of long-range missiles it can use an EMP attack to threaten our survival as a nation and, indeed, the existence of modern society. If a nuclear Iran decided that we were, literally, (and not just as the target of a Persian religious expletive) “the Great Satan,” it might decide that we should meet Satan’s fate.