Will Tech Be Our Undoing?

By on December 7, 2005

There’s a new book out — “War Footing” — with some scary things to say about what could happen if the bad guys got their hands on a nuke and detonated it high above US soil.

Looking at the promo website for the book makes you wonder if the whole thing is similar to the Y2K scare. But this last summer the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack (yes, that’s the commission’s name!) reported to Congress that a nuclear-generated electromagnetic pulse “is one of a small number of threats that has the potential to hold our society seriously at risk and might result in defeat of our military forces.”

What could an EMP do? An example…

In 1962, the United States conducted a test called “Starfish Prime,” detonating a nuclear weapon about 250 miles above Johnston Island in the Pacific Ocean. The resulting EMP reached all the way to the Hawaiian Islands, a little over 700 miles away. There, on the far edge of the EMP field, the explosion extinguished streetlights in Honolulu, tripped circuit breakers, triggered burglar alarms, and damaged a telecommunications relay facility.

That was a 1.5 megaton bomb, and the world of 1962 was much less tech-dependent than we are. Today a decent sized nuke launched from a freighter in the Gulf of Mexico to a 300 mile altitude could theoretically knock out a multitude of electronic devices from coast to coast; computers, cars, power stations, cell phone communication… It’d knock us back 50 years technologically. What would a programmer do if there were no functioning computers?

I remember much being said about EMP when I was in the military, but this is the first time in a long time that I’ve read anything at all on the subject. A lot of the Mil-spec equipment we used was hardened against the effects of EMP, but any communications equipment that relies on an antenna for transmitting or receiving is vulnerable and impossible to fully protect. I highly doubt that EMP protection is even a consideration in consumer-grade equipment.

The World Tribune has an exerpt from one of the chapters of the book. Some interesting reading. But is it hype or a real threat?



  1. As long as there was only one detonation over the US, we could just pull our hundreds of thousands of troops from overseas back for protection. That would take some time, tho. I think we should worry about the dirty bombs, first.

  2. I think we should worry about the dirty bombs, first.

    Agreed. The threat posed by a high-altitude nuke is much less likely to happen because it would require more sophisticated equipment & trained personnel to pull it off. Any dirtbag terrorist could do a dirty bomb. But catching that guy presents the bigger challenge.

    I also found another good read here. It’s the Congressional testimony about the EMP threat.

  3. Any dirtbag terrorist could do a dirty bomb.

    According to The Onion, it’s harder than it seems:

    Yaquub Akhtar […] admitted Tuesday that he “doesn’t have the slightest clue” what to do with the quarter-kilogram of plutonium he recently acquired.

    “We had just given thanks to Allah for this glorious means to destroy the Great Satan once and for all, when Mahmoud asked, ‘So, what’s the next step?'” Akhtar said.

    “I was at a loss.”

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