Brian Kennedy @ yesterday's WSJ takes a look at the consequences of an electro-magnetic pulse attack on the US, and the results aren't pretty. There are now nearly thirty nations with ballistic missile capability on the globe, and the number is only likely to increase in the near term. While the number of nations that could conceivably directly threaten the US isn't large today, it also will only increase over time, and many of these nations DO threaten US strategic and regional interests, such as the Straight of Hormuz, the Staight of Malacca and the Horn of Africa.
Here's a scenario for you that isn't terribly far fetched.
"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.
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."
Kennedy goes on to say the Iranians have been testing just such missile launches in the Caspian Sea teice over the last eight years.
The only defense against these potential and future threats is the full scale development of ballistic missle defenses. I've been a believer in this technology for over twenty years, and nothing I've seen or heard since that time has convinced me the idea of developing DEFENSIVE weapons capable of stopping a nuclear, chemical or biological attack on US or friendly foreign soil is a bad idea. The best way to accomplish this is through a multi-layered approach consisting of a method to stop missiles shortly after launch, in mid flight as they temporarily leave the atmosphere, and once again as they approach their targets. This strategic direction was pointed out by Army General Daniel Graham almost twenty-five years ago in his book High Frontier. President Reagan adopted much of Graham's proposal in 1983.
The technology for much of this already exists; we have both a "point defense" capability to track and shoot down incoming missiles based in Alaska (and are negotiating to place a similiar site in Europe), and also have a forward looking "boost phase" capability to destroy a missile shortly after launch using the US Navy's Aegis system, along with an air-based laser system place on a Boeing 747. The sea-based system is currently the most promising, with the Navy's SM-3 interceptor missile showing a robust capability in testing. It also has a modest price tag, costing about only $20 million to modify a ship, and with the added bonus that allied vessels of naitons such as Japan are also capable of being upgraded.
But the most critical component is desperately starved of funds. We are currently lacking a space-based boost and/or mid flight defense that would likely be the most capable and effective leg of the defense triad, although the tehcnology exists, it was killed under the Clinton administration, and has yet to be revived.