E-bombs: the looming threat from doomsday terror weapons of the 21st century

Monday, April 29, 2013
By Paul Martin

April 29, 2013

WEAPONS – A nuclear weapon explodes 300 km above Nebraska, the geographical centre of the United States. The blast is far too high to kill people by heat or radioactivity. But it does something far worse – it sends the world’s most advanced country into the Stone Age. This isn’t science fiction. The technology for launching this version of Armageddon exists and is ridiculously low tech. Even an ordinary, low-yield nuclear bomb exploded in the upper atmosphere by terrorists, with help from dysfunctional nuclear powers such as North Korea or Pakistan, would unleash a deadly electromagnetic pulse (EMP) that will take only a nanosecond to knock out an entire country’s electrical grid. That means every microchip will be fried and all electronic systems will fail. The result would be “fundamental collapse” as the United States EMP Commission describes it. All phones and mobiles will stop functioning, the transport system would come to a halt, the banking system, airports, food and fuel distribution systems would collapse. The fabric of modern society would be ripped apart. If the Boston bombings have proved anything it is that low tech warfare can bring a high-tech nation to its knees. Two Chechen brothers, not very well-equipped or professionally trained but nevertheless motivated by Islamic zeal, forced an entire city to close down. Pressure cooker bombs are cheap; flying stolen aircraft into skyscrapers is free (other than the cost of flight training) and sending a bunch of raiders into a modern metropolis (as the Pakistanis did in Mumbai) takes only a few thousand dollars. But at the end of the standoff, the terrorists always lose and often die. No modern state has ever buckled under terror. Terrorists and terrorist states, therefore, want something that will give them more bang for the buck. It makes you wonder, what next? The Russians were the first to understand the implications of EMP as a weapon. Soviet physicist Andrei Sakharov proposed using this principle in a bomb in the 1950s. On October 22, 1962, during one of their ABM tests, the Russians detonated a 300 kiloton hydrogen warhead (20 times more powerful than Hiroshima) at an altitude of 300 km over Kazakhstan. The blast deliberately targeted two cable lines. The first one was the 550 km East-West telephone line – all the fuses in the line which was 7.5 m above the ground were destroyed. The second, the 1,000 km Aqmola-Almaty power line, carried electricity from a power station in the city of Karaganda. It was a lead-shielded cable protected against mechanical damage by spiral-wound steel tape, and was buried at a depth of 90 cm. This cable succumbed completely to the EMP within seconds of the blast, overheating and setting the power station on fire. The United States military realised EMP’s potential as a weapon the same year, in the Starfish Prime test of a much larger 1.44 megaton warhead at a height of 400 km over the Pacific Ocean. The pulse knocked out street lights and damaged telephones in Hawaii. Four days after the explosion the UK satellite Ariel was unable to generate sufficient electricity to function properly.

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