Earlier on this week, Pyongyang through its KCNA news agency announced that its weapons could be used to launch a “super powerful” electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack. But should a country the size of the United States be concerned about such a threat?
As the below map shows, an EMP – a nuclear explosion-induced burst of electromagnetic radiation – could potentially affect the entire nation as well as its close neighbors. The extent of the destruction would depend upon the size of the nuclear warhead used and the altitude the detonation occurred at. For instance, a weapon detonated 19 miles up in the atmosphere would affect a handful of states while a blast 294 miles above the Earth’s surface would affect most of the U.S. as well as its close neighbors.
In April 2008, the chairman of the Commission To Assess The Threat To The US From An EMP Attack told Congress that an EMP could “hold our society at risk of catastrophic consequences” unless “practical steps are taken to provide protection for critical elements of the electric system and for rapid restoration of electric power, particularly to essential services.”
Even though key defense and government facilities are understood to now be protected from such attacks, ten years or so later our national grid still remains extremely vulnerable. More recently, former Central Intelligence Agency Director James Woolsey spelled out the inevitable consequences of such an attack.
‘If you look at the electric grid and what it is susceptible to, we would be moving into a world with no food delivery, no water purification, no banking, no telecommunications, no medicine. All of these things depend on electricity in one way or another,” Woolsey warned in March. In other words, a successfully-launched EMP could potentially wipe out a large proportion of the U.S. population.
In addition, an attack on the U.S. would have far-reaching consequences on the world economy. This could be the reason why Moscow for instance is continuing to push for a diplomatic solution to the North Korea crisis.
Fortunately, the U.S. can rely on a number of defense systems to thwart an attack by the rogue regime although our Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD), which is supposed to intercept incoming warheads, has been a bit of a let down as shown below. Our Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, however, appears to be our best bet as it has so far intercepted all of its targets.