Iran’s Next Big Threat: EMP? No.

An article over at the Counterterrorism Blog warns of the supposed dangers of an Iranian EMP attack on the continental United States. EMP, if you’re not up on your acronyms-of-mass-destruction, stands for “Electro-Magnetic Pulse”, which tells you pretty much everything you need to know about how it works. There’s a little more to this than meets the eye, however.

The basic premise is that Iran would launch a long-range intercontinental ballistic missile – that they don’t actually have – armed with a nuclear warhead – that they probably don’t actually have – and detonate it high, high above the United States, where the resulting electro-magnetic pulse would destroy all things electronic and “cripple military and civilian communications, power, transportation, water, food, and other infrastructure”, thereby “paralyzing” the country, or at least large parts thereof.

If that sounds far-fetched, it’s because it is. No, don’t get me wrong – EMPs are real side-effects of nuclear detonations, and they really can destroy electronic devices. The thing is, this fearmongering about EMPs – especially Iranian EMPs – is really just a ploy to drum up support for an improved and expanded missile-defense “shield”.

The author of the somewhat incoherent article linked above is one Walid Phares, a “Director of Future Terrorism Project at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies”, and a “Professor” at the rabidly anti-Islamic Centre for Counterintelligence and Security Studies. The “Foundation for the Defense of Democracies” Phares is a director of is a supposedly-nonpartisan ultraconservative thinktank with a fairly overt anti-Islamic agenda. And, surprise surprise, they’re the folks behind the Shield America project, which Dr. Phares so inexpertly pimps in his article.

Not surprisingly, given the people behind it – and the not-exactly-subtle name – “Shield America” is doing nothing but shrilly crying about a largely unrealistic threat from the warmongers’ whipping-boy of choice, Iran, which – naturally – has but one solution: a missile-defense shield. As far as threats go, they’re all Iran, all the time. And, while they do mention other defenses besides “missile shields”, those “other” options get exactly one dismissive sentence on their website:

“One measure is hardening our infrastructure against such an attack. But the most vital step is development of an adequate missile defense system.”

Other than that one sentence, they’re all missile-defense, all the time. They seem to be missile-defense-shield opportunists, playing off of – and playing up – the largely overlooked recent government report from the “Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from EMP Attack”. That commission – and their report – had the involvement of actual, nonpartisan scientists, and so wasn’t nearly as alarming and hyperbolic as the hawks at the “Foundation for the Defense of Democracies” would have liked. Nevermind reality, they’ve chosen a few quotes from the report which they think supports their (no doubt heavily subsidized) obsession with missile defense. Much as with Walid Phares’ self-promotional article, you get the impression that the people involved in this program don’t really understand English very well. They quote a recommendation of the Commission chairman:

“A serious national commitment to address the threat of an EMP attack can develop a national posture that would significantly reduce the payoff for such an attack and allow the United States to recover in a timely manner if such an attack were to occur.”

…and then it’s all missile-defense again. The commission didn’t really look at stopping an EMP attack – which can be generated by non-nuclear means, though you’d never know it from reading the “Shield America” website – and certainly didn’t obsess about a single country as a threat. Rather, they took a far more pragmatic approach that recommended an emphasis on recoverability. Which, if you (gasp!) stop and think about it, makes a whole heck of a lot of sense:

A missile-shield only protects against, um, missiles, and would do nothing against – as one example – a ship. Nor would it offer any benefit against an EMP from, say, a truck-borne nuclear device, or the accidental detonation of an American military warhead, or any kind of domestically-produced, non-nuclear EMP. (Or, for that matter, the nearly identical effects of a very large solar flare from our sun.) If our infrastructure – and our society – are really as vulnerable to EMP as some people would have you believe – something I’m a little skeptical about, myself – then if you really cared about defending against that threat, your plan would involve, oh, hardening or shielding of critical electronics, and things like that, right? Yet, surprise surprise, the missile-shield advocacy brigade only see one possible solution.

Now, the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and “Shield America” goons are clearly unobjective partisan bigots, trying to push their own special interests – in the name of “national security”, of course – at any cost. That’s really nothing to get too excited about; Washington is infested with thousands of similarly amoral political whores. But these guys are truly amazing, because they’re trying to screw up not just one or two, but three things all at once:

1, they’re advocating a ridiculously hard-line, hawkish attitude that makes Iran out to be the worst threat to the world in the last thousand years, which is of no benefit to any potential diplomatic relations with Tehran;

2, they’re advocating a ridiculously expensive pet-project solution that isn’t proven to work, or even be workable, for a threat that doesn’t actually exist, and whose not-inconsequential costs could be better spent almost anywhere;

3, they’re advocating this missile-defense “solution” as an answer to the EMP “threat”, when it actually fails entirely to address the threat itself, and instead concentrates on one – not even the most likely – of many theoretically possible delivery vectors.

And that’s really where I take issue with these guys: if they want to use lies to spread fear, uncertainty, and doubt to promote their useless and unnecessary pet projects, that’s fine; it’s what everyone else does, after all. If they want to promote their stupid missile defense “shield” as a panacea for the largely nonexistent “Iranian ICBM” threat, I’m okay with that, because – other than wasting millions if not billions of dollars – it’s a harmless bit of special-interests boondogglery. But by promoting missile defense as the be-all, end-all of solutions to the EMP threat – when it’s actually nothing of the sort – they’re actually damaging our country’s ability to respond to such a threat, however far-fetched. As a country, we’d be better off knowing that we’re vulnerable to an EMP attack, however unlikely it may be, than sitting around, complacently believing that everything is super-duper because there’s a “shield” of very expensive missiles and radars designed to protect us. These guys have a thin veneer of patriotism over their shriveled, tainted, anti-Iranian, pro-missile-defense hearts, but their “plan” will actually do more harm to this country than good. And that, I don’t care how you spin it, is not cool with me.

Published in: 'D' for 'Dumb', Geekiness, General, Security | on November 5th, 2008| 1 Comment »

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  1. On 12/6/2008 at 10:46 am Bill Collins Said:

    I will not argue the probability of the use of an EMP weapon against the US by Iran. However if it is a risk, a missile defense system is the logical response to such a threat. To be effective over a broad area, an EMP must emit a considerable amount of energy and be detonated dozens to hundreds of Km above the target. Neither a chemical EMP at any altitude or a surface burst nuclear device is capable of inflicting broad flux induced electronic damage. Most assessments suggest that the near future risk is from a small 10-50 Kt nuclear device specifically designed for maximum EMP effect. This could be delivered on a conventional SCUD style missile launched from a cargo ship just off US shores. Iran will be capable of this within 2-5 years.

    Their desire to investigate this option was demonstrated by high altitude test detonations of ship launched missiles. There is no other reasonable explanation of these tests. It certainly may have been posturing on Iran’s part, but the existential risk is real. A single well placed nuclear EMP weapon would likely cause more deaths than if every major city in the US were hit with conventional nuclear weapons. Consider no electronic devices including all cars, trucks, trains, planes, etc. for 12-36 months. A substantial percentage of us would starve in the first 6 months.