By: Dr. Peter Vincent Pry
North Korea’s third illegal nuclear test on February 12, 2013, was followed by increased international sanctions, that prompted escalating threats from North Korea to make nuclear missile strikes against U.S. allies, South Korea and Japan, and the mainland United States. President Obama denied that North Korea could deliver on these threats, claiming that North Korea does not yet have nuclear armed missiles–despite assessments to the contrary by DIA, CIA, and NATO.
Three months earlier, on December 12, 2012, North Korea successfully orbited a satellite, the KSM-3, thereby demonstrating the capability to deliver a small nuclear warhead to intercontinental ranges–against any nation on Earth. The Congressional Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack assessed that Russia, China, and North Korea (with help from Russia) have probably developed nuclear weapons of special design that produce a low explosive yield and high gamma ray output in order to generate an extraordinarily powerful EMP field. The Russians term these “Super-EMP” weapons. Independently, South Korean military intelligence and a Chinese military commentator in open sources credit North Korea with having Super-EMP warheads.
The design characteristics of a Super-EMP warhead are such that it would likely be small enough for delivery by North Korea’s Unha-3 space launch vehicle or its Taepodong-2 ICBM.
North Korea during its December 12, 2012 launch of the KSM-3 satellite apparently practiced making against the U.S. a surprise nuclear EMP attack. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union developed a secret weapon–the Fractional Orbital Bombardment System (FOBS)–disguised as a peaceful space launch vehicle, that could orbit a nuclear warhead like a satellite, to make a surprise EMP attack.
The FOBS would launch southward, away from the U.S., and orbit a nuclear warhead on a satellite trajectory over the South Pole, attacking the U.S. from the south. During the Cold War and today, U.S. Ballistic Missile Early Warning Radars and anti-missile interceptors are all looking north. U.S. National Missile Defenses are blind to the south and not prepared for an attack from that direction.
The first warning of a FOBS attack would be the nuclear EMP burst which could paralyze military communications and forces and would have catastrophic consequences for the electric grid and other civilian critical infrastructures. The Congressional EMP Commission assesses that a nuclear EMP attack that causes a protracted nationwide blackout lasting a year or more could kill up to 9 of 10 Americans from starvation, disease, and societal collapse.
The trajectory of North Korea’s KSM-3 satellite had the characteristics for delivery by FOBS of a surprise nuclear EMP attack against the United States. The satellite was launched to the south, away from the U.S., transited the South Pole, and approached the U.S. from its southern blindside–at the optimum altitude for placing an EMP field over all 48 contiguous United States.
President Obama, despite public dismissal of the North Korean nuclear missile threats, nonetheless conducted B-2 bomber demonstrations over the demilitarized zone and strengthened National Missile Defenses (but not in the south).
Amidst the nuclear crisis with North Korea, on April 10, 2013, the KSM-3 satellite was near the geographic center of the U.S., at optimum altitude (if KSM-3 was a nuclear weapon) for placing an EMP field over most of the continental United States.
On April 16, 2013, the KSM-3 satellite was over the Washington, D.C.-New York City corridor–the optimum location and altitude for placing a peak EMP field over the area most likely to blackout the Eastern Grid. The Eastern Grid generates 75 percent of U.S. electricity and is indispensable to national survival. The peak EMP field would also have maximized damage to Washington and New York, the nation’s political and economic centers.
Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, on April 16, 2013, on the same day North Korea’s KSM-3 was over Washington and New York, saboteurs unknown attacked the critically important Metcalf transformer substation outside San Jose, that services a 470 megawatt power plant and the Silicon Valley. Had the attack on Metcalf destroyed the transformers, cascading failures might well have blacked out much of the Western Grid. U.S. military operations in the Pacific, and against North Korea in a major war, depend upon West coast power projection capabilities.
Power projection to the Pacific and Asia cannot be sustained if the Western Grid is in blackout.
Three months after Metcalf and the KSM-3 orbit over Washington-New York City, a North Korean freighter that transited the Gulf of Mexico was intercepted trying to enter the Panama Canal carrying, hidden in its hold under bags of sugar, two nuclear-capable SA-2 missiles on their launchers. The missiles had no nuclear warheads. But North Korea’s demonstrated capability to move nuclear capable missiles into the Gulf of Mexico is eerily similar to the EMP Commission’s nightmare scenario of a rogue state launching a nuclear EMP attack from a freighter operating off the U.S. coast.
An EMP attack launched from a freighter near the U.S. coast could achieve surprise, minimize the possibility of interception, and be executed anonymously to escape retaliation. Deterrence and retaliation depends upon knowing who executed the attack.
The nuclear crisis of 2013 may have been an elaborate training exercise by North Korea for an all-out Cyber Warfare Operation against the United States. The Congressional EMP Commission found, and as explained in May 2013 congressional testimony of former CIA Director R. James Woolsey, in the military doctrines of Russia, China, Iran and North Korea, Cyber Warfare is not limited to computer viruses and hacking–but includes sabotage, like the Metcalf attack, and nuclear EMP attack. The objective is to destroy the enemy by collapsing the civilian critical infrastructures–communications, transportation, banking and finance, food and water–and especially the electric grid, which sustains all the infrastructures, and modern civilization.
All the elements of a total Cyber Warfare Operation were present. Every day the electric grid and other critical infrastructures experience hundreds of attacks and probes by computer viruses and hacking. The Metcalf attack on April 16 may have been practice for a much larger and more ambitious sabotage campaign against the electric grid, as Jon Wellinghoff, former Chairman of the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and many experts believe. The April 16 orbit of KSM-3 over Washington and New York, in the perfect position for an EMP attack on the Eastern Grid, is an astounding coincidence, if it is a coincidence. Three months later, the presence in the Gulf of Mexico of a North Korean freighter carrying nuclear capable SA-2 missiles completes the picture, and checks all the boxes for an all-out Cyber Warfare Operation.
What is to be done?
Former Director of Central Intelligence Woolsey and I have written in the Wall Street Journal that it is too risky to tolerate North Korean launches of their Unha-3 space launch vehicle or their Taepondong-2 ICBM–we should blow them up on the pad in a surgical strike.
During President George W. Bush’s Administration, former Secretary of Defense William Perry and Ashton Carter, until recently President Obama’s Deputy Secretary of Defense, both advocated such a policy. They urged President Bush to surgically destroy North Korean long-range missiles under development–because it would be too dangerous to allow North Korea the capability to deliver a nuclear weapon against the United States.
Now that North Korea has Super-EMP weapons, and the capability to deliver them, preventing their launch of weapons or “satellites” over the United States is even more imperative.
More important than ever, vital to national survival, is protecting the electric grid from EMP and the other elements of an all-out Cyber Warfare Operation. Bills enjoying strong bipartisan support are before Congress designed to protect the grid–the GRID Act, the SHIELD Act, and the Critical Infrastructures Protection Act. But these have been stalled, blocked from a vote, by lobbying from the electric power industry, especially the North American Electric Reliability Corporation.
State initiatives to protect the grid from EMP and other threats have been more successful and appear to be a promising way to achieve progress. Maine and Virginia have already passed initiatives to study protecting their State grids. Florida, New York, New Mexico, Utah, Oklahoma and Indiana have movements afoot to introduce grid protection initiatives, instead of waiting for Washington to act.
Finally, Ambassador Henry Cooper, former Director of the Strategic Defense Initiative, has excellent ideas about how we can quickly bolster National Missile Defense with Aegis cruisers and Aegis ashore interceptors to patch the holes in our defenses–especially to the south. Ambassador Cooper is our nation’s foremost expert on missile defense. During the Cold War he was deeply involved in efforts to protect our military forces from EMP.