Understanding North Korea’s EMP Threat

North Korea just issued a serious threat against the United States of America.

The US power grid. Image by NASA.

Few people outside the world of nuclear warfare military analysis have pondered electromagnetic pulse (EMP) as a strategic weapon. It’s well understood and mostly dismissed in battle planning because military forces and command systems are specified to be radiation hardened against EMP. But North Korea is not a conventional or rational foe. They have telegraphed that they are preparing to engage in an asymmetric attack; not against the US military or government, but against the American people.

Their apparent weapon of choice is a high energy nuclear bomb designed to deliver an EMP burst from high altitude over the United States mainland.

The killing mechanism of such an attack is “elegant”; that’s my Cold War analyst past showing up as an encapsulating term. The EMP burst’s objective is to saturate the US power grid underneath it with energy flowing into the wiring. The goal is to burn out a portion of the three hundred or so high voltage transformers that link the US together as an industrial age economy. By burn out, that means causing the melting of the transformer cores rendering them useless. Repairing such damage is cumbersome. There is only one plant that manufactures these types transformers in the US and it does not even make the biggest ones needed for the US grid backbone. These have to come from factories in Europe or China and there’s a multi-year backlog for them.

Prior to North Korea’s announcement that they have developed a hydrogen bomb designed for EMP use, most experts dismissed the danger arguing that North Korea’s weapons were too puny. This premise has been altered. One should never really underestimate the determination of a fanatical foe.

The eastern seaboard of the United States is presently the most vulnerable part of the country to such an attack. It is our oldest electrical grid. It is highly dependent on an interconnecting network of power generation sources supplying electricity to densely populated metropolises. The long-haul lines are AC current based, a transmission method that makes them more susceptible to EMP. And, despite many theory papers having been written on it, minimal investments have been made to harden this grid against man made EMP attack or the natural disaster version of the threat, solar coronal mass ejection (CME). In strategic warfare planning terms, we are both vulnerable and susceptible to attack.

Caught unprepared, it may be possible to cut off major sections of the US mainland from electrical service. This in turn means all utilities infrastructure breaks down as one of the world’s most electricity dependent regions goes dark for up the better part of a decade. The human survival carrying capacity of these areas will drop dramatically, potentially catastrophically, resulting in suffering and death far beyond what we see in even the worst natural disasters. Desperation would consume up to one hundred million people scrambling to survive at qualities of life one-tenth of the present. Entire metropolitan regions and economic centers may/will collapse. By the time we emerge, the US would not be the same as we know it today.

Take heart. All is not lost. The United States is not defenseless if we must “ride out” a nuclear attack. Ride out; there’s another Cold War term I had hoped to not have to use again in my lifetime. But here we are.

As can clearly be seen in the news, the U.S. Department of Defense “all cards on the table” posture has already begun to prepare an “overwhelming military response” option. In the event that North Korea attacks, we will wipe them out. Classically, this is the basis of rational credible deterrence. Unfortunately, North Korea is more of an irrational foe.

To position their warhead for proper effect, their ICBM’s would likely have to fly a controversial fractional orbit bombardment (FOB) profile first developed by the Soviets in the 1960’s. FOBS were considered dangerously destabilizing; enough that they were ultimately mutually abandoned by the United States and Soviet Union as part of the proposed SALT II Agreement in 1979. Technically, FOBS weapons are not illegal though. SALT II was never ratified. The two countries merely set it aside. Like gun control in America, destabilizing nuclear weapons controls only apply to the abiding. By any stretch of the imagination, North Korea does not abide.

As to shooting the missile down. Let me teach you something about the trained eye of a nuclear war planner. Guam. Guam lies to the south east of the Korean Peninsula. A fractional orbit bombardment system attack feigning in the direction of Guam sets up an axis of approach to target the US mainland for a high-altitude detonation coming from the south. North Korean test launches have been observed climbing to high altitudes. What does that tell you? Defensively, the US has minimal ICBM warning or tracking capabilities for an attack from this direction. If I wanted to maximize the chances to pull off a Pearl Harbor type of attack, it would be the direction I would choose to take the shot.

OK, so tactically, maybe they think they’ve found an advantage. Unfortunate. Time to adapt and overcome. What next? Clearly, we’re going to have to think about watching their available launch fan. It’s a good thing we’ve got the best Navy on this planet. Maybe we’ll get lucky and intercept the thing; although realistically, a FOBS warhead is not an easy target. But if we can position a picket line to keep track of the overhead pass timing of these objects, there’s other stuff we can do.

We have procedures in place that we don’t practice very much to manage the exposure of our power grid to coronal mass ejection (CME) events. These are also potentially devastating energy overload threats to the grid. NASA watches a deep space network that watches the sun and issues warnings to power companies to curtail or shut down loads on the grid to protect it if needed. It’s possible, if we put our collective Homeland Security minds to it, to set up a similar system to deliberately black out or decouple the US power grid in the event of an incoming EMP threat. It’s not perfect because some things will fry regardless. Little stuff can be replaced easily enough. Our strategic goal here is to prevent a cascading catastrophic failure of our electrical grid. If we can do that, we reduce our susceptibility and vulnerability to this rogue foe tremendously.

Investigating, certifying and exercising a near term threat mitigation defensive plan for the US mainland is deeply in our strategic national interest. We need to be able to openly call the viability of North Korea’s bravado into question on the world stage. We need to confound Kim Jong Un’s regime to the point that it comes to its senses. We need to demonstrate to others that the United States knows full well how to defend itself when it has to. Doing so creates powerful leverage to rein in rogue states. That’s the best path back to global stability.

The bottom line is that this planet does not need to tolerate this behavior by North Korea. The United States of America is in a unique position to bring this to an end strongly and peacefully without any mushrooms having to cloud this planet’s skies.

We should consider doing so.

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