Countdown to Zero: When All Else Fails?

Regardless of your political leanings (the producer of this movie, Lawrence Bender, also produced Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth), the subject of Countdown to Zero should be of interest and concern to everyone.  At the very least, I think we can all agree that these weapons should be accounted for and not be in the hands of terrorists and rogue nations.  If the movie is (or will be) playing in your area, see it.

Electromagnetic pulse (EMP) from an atomic blast is a real threat to our communication infrastructure, including our ham radio equipment.  A single weapon detonated over the United States could wipe out most communications equipment from coast to coast.  Don’t take my word for it, though.  Read this excerpt from The Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack’s Executive Report:


The high-altitude nuclear weapon-generated electromagnetic pulse (EMP) 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.

The damage level could be sufficient to be catastrophic to the Nation, and our current vulnerability invites attack.

Briefly, a single nuclear weapon exploded at high altitude above the United States will interact with the Earth’s atmosphere, ionosphere, and magnetic field to produce an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) radiating down to the Earth and additionally create electrical currents in the Earth. EMP effects are both direct and indirect. The former are due to electromagnetic “shocking” of electronics and stressing of electrical systems, and the latter arise from the damage that “shocked”—upset, damaged, and destroyed—electronics controls then inflict on the systems in which they are embedded. The indirect effects can be even more severe than the direct effects.

The electromagnetic fields produced by weapons designed and deployed with the intent to produce EMP have a high likelihood of damaging electrical power systems, electronics, and information systems upon which American society depends. Their effects on dependent systems and infrastructures could be sufficient to qualify as catastrophic to the Nation.

Depending on the specific characteristics of the attacks, unprecedented cascading failures of our major infrastructures could result. In that event, a regional or national recovery would be long and difficult and would seriously degrade the safety and overall viability of our Nation. The primary avenues for catastrophic damage to the Nation are through our electric power infrastructure and thence into our telecommunications, energy, and other infrastructures. These, in turn, can seriously impact other important aspects of our Nation’s life, including the financial system; means of getting food, water, and medical care to the citizenry; trade; and production of goods and services. The recovery of any one of the key national infrastructures is dependent on the recovery of others. The longer the outage, the more problematic and uncertain the recovery will be. It is possible for the functional outages to become mutually reinforcing until at some point the degradation of infrastructure could have irreversible effects on the country’s ability to support its population.

EMP effects from nuclear bursts are not new threats to our nation. The Soviet Union in the past and Russia and other nations today are potentially capable of creating these effects. Historically, this application of nuclear weaponry was mixed with a much larger population of nuclear devices that were the primary source of destruction, and thus EMP as a weapons effect was not the primary focus. Throughout the Cold War, the United States did not try to protect its civilian infrastructure against either the physical or EMP impact of nuclear weapons, and instead depended on deterrence for its safety.

What is different now is that some potential sources of EMP threats are difficult to deter—they can be terrorist groups that have no state identity, have only one or a few weapons, and are motivated to attack the US without regard for their own safety. Rogue states, such as North Korea and Iran, may also be developing the capability to pose an EMP threat to the United States, and may also be unpredictable and difficult to deter.

Certain types of relatively low-yield nuclear weapons can be employed to generate potentially catastrophic EMP effects over wide geographic areas, and designs for variants of such weapons may have been illicitly trafficked for a quarter-century.

China and Russia have considered limited nuclear attack options that, unlike their Cold War plans, employ EMP as the primary or sole means of attack. Indeed, as recently as May 1999, during the NATO bombing of the former Yugoslavia, high-ranking members of the Russian Duma, meeting with a US congressional delegation to discuss the Balkans conflict, raised the specter of a Russian EMP attack that would paralyze the United States.

Another key difference from the past is that the US has developed more than most other nations as a modern society heavily dependent on electronics, telecommunications, energy, information networks, and a rich set of financial and transportation systems that leverage modern technology. This asymmetry is a source of substantial economic, industrial, and societal advantages, but it creates vulnerabilities and critical interdependencies that are potentially disastrous to the United States. Therefore, terrorists or state actors that possess relatively unsophisticated missiles armed with nuclear weapons may well calculate that, instead of destroying a city or military base, they may obtain the greatest political-military utility from one or a few such weapons by using them—or threatening their use—in an EMP attack. The current vulnerability of US critical infrastructures can both invite and reward attack if not corrected; however, correction is feasible and well within the Nation’s means and resources to accomplish.

Amateur Radio is depended upon “when all else fails.”  Ham radio operators pride themselves on their “readiness, resilience, and response.”  Well prepared hams have their 72-hour Go Kits, extra batteries for their fancy HTs, etc.  But what if the emergency involves some sort of EMP attack?  Are you ready to provide emergency communications for your community when your solid-state HF and VHF transceivers have been rendered useless boat anchors?

Here are some interesting resources.  Your mileage may vary:

The time to go online and learn more about protecting your equipment isn’t after an event when you’re sitting in the dark and your computer won’t even turn on.

Have you done anything to protect your equipment from EMP?

Know of any good resources for hams interested in learning more?

Matt Thomas, W1MST, is the managing editor of Contact him at [email protected].

2 Responses to “Countdown to Zero: When All Else Fails?”

  • John WX4O:

    I’ve worried about EMP for very many years. Military electronics is (was?) supposedly ‘hardened’ against EMP, but I doubt that they would spend the money nowadays.

  • Author:

    We’re a gaggle of volunteers and starting a new scheme in our community. Your website provided us with useful info to work on. You have done a formidable activity and our whole community might be thankful to you.

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