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The Scariest (Disaster) Book I Have Ever Read, Part I

The most terrifying weapon facing the U.S. may already be in our enemies' hands. Are you prepared for the ultimate disaster? In Part I of his three-part series, author Leo Wrobel explains how an electromagnetic pulse can damage the world as we know it today.
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It is often in science fiction that one garners a perspective on possible futures, which is probably why I am such an avid reader of such books. Once in a while a book comes out that takes a unique perspective on Disaster Recovery. Combine my reading habits with my propensity to write on little known or seldom considered disaster recovery topics, and an article series like this one pops up. Believe it or not, some of my articles start with a topic from a science fiction novel, which after consideration turns out to be too real to ignore. This is one of them.

I recently read a book called One Second After by William R. Forstchen. (The foreword for the book was written by Newt Gingrich when he was house speaker.) The book made a great impression on me. It portrays a disaster that, surprisingly, nobody thinks about in the contingency planning community. I lent the book to a dear friend who is also an electrical engineer. He called it “The scariest book I have ever read.”

I can say without qualification that the premise of this book contains the most terrifying possibility facing disaster recovery planners today that I have considered in my 25 years in this business. It starts like this:

A barge in the Gulf of Mexico launches a single missile carrying a single nuclear weapon. The missile does not target any particular American city. Instead, it is detonated about 200 miles above the Kansas prairie. The result of that single missile has been characterized by some writers as “a giant continental time machine.” It creates a sequence of events that transposes all 300 million of us back more than a century in technology, and effectively destroys our country. The event had nothing to do with blast, radiation, or chemical/germ warfare. The event is called an electromagnetic pulse, or EMP. The phenomenon known as EMP is real, and it’s terrifying.

A single nuclear bomb that’s exploded over the Midwest would generate an EMP that would destroy the whole U.S. power grid and virtually everything connected to it. Particularly hard hit would be the silicon chips that are at the heart of every electronic device. While military and intelligence networks may be shielded against EMP, most of the rest of the country’s technological infrastructure is not, and the bad guys know this. An EMP attack would wipe out computers and the Internet. There would be no electricity, perhaps for years. Gasoline pumps would not work, and aircraft would fall from the skies. Heat and air conditioning would shut down; supermarkets would close for want of distribution. Telephones would go dead, both wireless and wireline. Water would go out, and radio and television sets would not turn on. Banks and ATMs would cease, credit cards would become useless, and we would become a barter society again for cash, gold, or worse. Emergency services would stop, and hospitals would close. In the ensuing chaos, most Americans would die from starvation in months. In the fiction novel, the population of the United States goes from 300 million to 30 million in a year.

The grim part is that experts agree this could happen, yet virtually nothing is being done on the national level to mitigate this threat.

The Threat of an EMP

According to Dr. Peter Vincent Pry, a leading expert on this subject in a recent interview entitled “EMP Attack Could Wipe Out U.S.,” the facts are sobering.

“We have a 60-day food supply in big regional warehouses,” Pry claims. “Typically when hurricanes take out the electric power grid locally, that food spoils because it needs temperature control systems and refrigerators to keep it preserved. And if you lose the electric grid across the whole country, you’re going to lose all that food that is the best hope for feeding the American people.”

A 2008 report of a Congressional Commission found that the country is shockingly unprepared for an EMP attack.

Terrorists or countries like Iran or North Korea could launch an EMP attack and “possibly end us as a civilization, and take us out as an actor on the world stage,” Pry says.

In fact, an Iranian military journal has floated around the idea of launching an EMP attack as the key to defeating the U.S. In an article titled "Electronics to Determine Fate of Future Wars," the journal explains how an EMP attack on America's electronic infrastructure would bring the country to its knees.

"Once you confuse the enemy communication network, you can also disrupt the work of the enemy command- and decision-making center," the article states. "Even worse today when you disable a country's military high command through disruption of communications, you will, in effect, disrupt all the affairs of that country. If the world's industrial countries fail to devise effective ways to defend themselves against dangerous electronic assaults, then they will disintegrate within a few years. American soldiers would not be able to find food to eat nor would they be able to fire a single shot."

Reporting to Congress, the EMP Commission concluded that little in the private sector is hardened to withstand an EMP attack, and even the U.S. military itself has only limited protection. In 2005, Former CIA chief James Woolsey affirmed these facts and urged the country to take steps necessary to protect against the potentially devastating consequences. In testimony before the House International Terrorism and Non-Proliferation Subcommittee, Woolsey referred to the nuclear EMP threat as "a SCUD in a bucket" whereby:

  • "…a simple ballistic missile from a stockpile somewhere in the world outfitted on something like a tramp steamer and fired from some distance offshore into an American city or to a high altitude, thereby creating an electromagnetic pulse effect, which could well be one of the most damaging ways of using a nuclear weapon."
  • "…We do not have the luxury of assuming that Iran, if it develops fissionable materials, for example, would not share it under some circumstances with al-Qaida operatives. We don't have the luxury of believing that just because North Korea is a communist state, it would not work under some circumstances to sell its fissionable material to Hezbollah or al-Qaida."

The author is not picking on Iran, but imagine if such a weapon fell into the hands of al-Qaeda or other terrorists who are willing to commit suicide to destroy America. There is no shortage of such fanatics today, and certainly no shortage of nuclear weapons.

What is really spooky is the prospect of a relatively unsophisticated EMP weapon falling into the hands of terrorists or rogue states. Again, I take a cue from a fictional work, the movie “The Sum of All Fears.” In that movie, Morgan Freeman (who played CIA Director William Cabot) asked the president why their contingency plans only revolved around Russia. The president responded that Russia was the only country “that had 20,000 nuclear weapons to worry about.” Cabot replied, “It’s the guy with ONE that I worry about.” My point precisely.

Nuclear weapons are horrendously expensive to produce and an unsustainable economic drain to all but the largest global economies. It only takes one though to hang an “Out of Business” sign over the United States or any other global superpower. The specifics follow, and they do not make for pleasant reading.

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