Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Goddamn Loudmouthed Bloggers: A Critical Reappraisal

Thanks to a link from Defense Tech (much appreciated!), I've gotten some e-mail and comments taking issue with my views on EMP. I'm not complaining, mind you; I'm happy to hear dissenting views, and to clarify my position, and - I hope - to learn new things.

With that in mind, I'm posting an adapted version of my response to one of the comments I received, in hopes that it'll explain my point of view to everyone's a couple of people's satisfaction.

First off, I don't think the threat of an EMP attack is absurd, in and of itself. I think the threat of an EMP attack by Iran is absurd.

North Korea, unless I'm mistaken, could possibly pull off an EMP attack. Same with China. But we're not talking about North Korea or China here, nor are we talking about EMP in general. We're talking about something very limited in scope:

1) Does the article cited by Farah provide any reason whatsoever to believe that Iran has "publicly considered" attacking the US via EMP?;


2) Does Iran have - or will it develop - the ability to launch such an attack?

Obviously, I'd answer both questions in the negative. But I concede that I may have expressed this a bit too...uh...energetically, for some people's taste. You can put it down to youthful exuberance.

I understand that the second question is debatable. I understand that, as Noah Shachtman says, you can't rule it out categorically. Nonetheless, I don't think Iran is likely to develop the capability to launch an EMP attack. And if they do launch one, I seriously doubt Lowell Wood's assertion that it might

literally destroy the American nation and could cause the deaths of 90 percent of its people and set us back a century or more in time as far as our ability to function as a society.
That said, my complaint is not that EMP is being discussed as a threat. My complaint is that a particular group of people is promoting a specific - and, in my opinion, unlikely - attack scenario through demonstrably dishonest means.

That's unethical, of course. But I think it's also irresponsible. If EMP truly is a serious threat, then it needs to be assessed honestly by neutral people who have no vested interest in drumming up support for a war on Iran, or shaking loose more money for missile defense. It seems to me that whether or not one agrees with me about the EMP danger posed by Iran, we should all be able to agree that articles like Farah's only serve to muddy these already murky waters.

One last point: Considering that we've had almost 45 years to reduce our vulnerability to EMP, I'm kind of surprised to learn that we haven't done it. We've spent an awful lot of money on the problem, and we've conducted a lot of tests; the consensus back in 1968 seemed to be that our electronic infrastructure needed to be "hardened" to withstand EMP. Basically, that meant shielding. And that was precisely the course of action the military took, as far as I can tell.

The Trestle EMP simulator at Kirtland AFB in New Mexico cost taxpayers almost $60 million in the late 1970s. Its purpose was to guide the design of effective EMP shielding (same with many aerial nuke tests in the late 1960s, if memory serves). If EMP still threatens us with annihilation, almost thirty years later, perhaps we ought to get at least a partial refund.

Apropos of which, we might want to revisit the findings of the U.S. Nuclear Weapons Cost Study Project. According to their figures, the United States spent $13.2 trillion (in 1996 dollars) on national defense between 1940 and 1996. And it spent a further $5.5 trillion on nuclear programs, including missile defense (and therefore, including failed projects like the $25 billion Safeguard system, which was put out of its misery in 1976 by none other than Donald Rumsfeld).

And yet, somehow, we find ourselves incredibly vulnerable to a single high-altitude nuclear weapon.

Go figure.

UPDATE: Jeffrey Lewis has posted the full English text of the Iranian article Arms Control Wonk. I can't begin to say how grateful I am for his help with this stuff.


monkeygrinder said...

I went to the bookstore the other day, and beheld the latest tome by Saint Jerome Corsi. (He of swift boat mendacity)

"Atomic Iran: How the Terrorist Regime Bought the Bomb and American Politicians"

It had a scary cover.

I wonder if there are bookstores in Iran with titles like "Nuclear US"


I believe the reason EMP shielding never progressed very far is because it is so expensive.

Stuff that is buried - like say, our nuclear weapons - hardened and likely unaffected.

Television? BLAMMO! Internet? Poof! All transisters shaken & stirred.

Phila said...

Shielding is expensive. But Safeguard and SDI cost something along the lines of $75 billion, and bought us very little indeed.

I don't know the total cost for EMP shielding. I do know that if failing to do it it leaves the USA vulnerable to destruction by a single bomb, it should've been done no matter what the cost...especially since "winnable nuclear war" has been the mantra of Rumsfeld and his ilk for decades. $75 billion might not've done the trick. But it would've gone a long way, I bet. So would the $170 billion (or however much it is to date) that we've spent on Iraq.

Of course, I suspect that an awful lot of critical electronic infrastructure has been hardened over the last thirty years, and that the EMP doomsday scenarios are exaggerated at best. But if anyone wants to argue otherwise, I'm very happy to have that conversation...it has interesting implications.

Cervantes said...

Well, if an EMP knocks out the TV news, it won't be all bad.

Anonymous said...

I, for one think the EMP threat is huge. After reading the Congressional panel's report, I'm left wondering why MORE folks aren't preparing in case doomsday strikes! It's not just a matter of throwing money at systems to harden them. Some things like high voltage transmission lines and electrical power substations CANNOT be protected and still perform their functions. We'd have to have redundant parts for every piece of electrical transmission hardware, and maybe store them in underground, hardened bunkers, AND STILL it could take months or years to install all of those pieces. In the meantime, the financial system collapses due to no corporations being in business anymore, people out of work, out of food, and out of clean water.

Back in the 60's, there were still a lot of vacuum tubes around that would survive. But since the explosion of integrated circuits and microelectronics, there hasn't been any above ground nuclear testing, and no nuclear weapon testing at all for quite some time. We don't know fully the effects on our new computers, but they could all be easily fried.

What about the missile tests the Iranians have been conducting from ships. All they have to do is get one or a few missiles launched from one or a few small ships, and they've got an anonymous EMP attack. Who do we strike back at?