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One Second Too Late: America’s Fate?

William D. Forstchen, co-author of six books with Newt Gingrich, has novelized one of America's worst national security nightmares: the Electromagnetic Pulse Bomb.

By 5.1.09

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One Second After 
By William D. Fortschen, with a foreword by Newt Gingrich
(Forge Books, 352 pages, $24.95)

Author William D. Forstchen, who has co-authored six books with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, has novelized one of America's worst national security nightmares in One Second After. The nightmare -- a rogue state's dream -- is that of a single missile launched from a barge several hundred miles off the coast of the continental United States, its atomic warhead arcing to a point 300 miles above Dorothy's Kansas and detonating. (The author uses three missiles; one can suffice.) The normal effects of a nuclear explosion close to Earth would not harm us from space: The resulting blast would be far too distant to send a lethal shockwave destroying anything on the ground beneath, a thermal pulse to incinerate anything, and would not create noticeable radioactive fallout.

But a little known effect of nuclear explosions would cause instantaneous, catastrophic harm to the entire continental United States. The blast would generate an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) series, striking a geographic circle 2,940 miles in diameter. Traveling at the free-space speed of light, EMP would reach ground in about one millisecond.

The author's own website gives a harrowing description of what would happen when the intense gamma rays generated by the blast hit the ground: 

As the Pulse strikes the Earth's surface, with a power that could range up to hundreds of amps per square yard, it will not affect you directly, at most you'll feel a slight tingling, the same as when lightning is about to strike close by, and nearly all the energy will just be absorbed into the ground and dissipate. The bad news, however, is wherever it strikes wires, metal surfaces, antennas, power lines it will now travel along those metal surfaces (in the same way a lightning bolt will always follow the metal of a lightning rod, or the power line into your house.) The longer the wire, the more energy is absorbed, a high tension wire miles long will absorb tens of thousands of amps, and here is where the destruction begins as it slams into any delicate electronic circuits, meaning computer chips, relays, etc. In that instant, they are overloaded by the massive energy surge, short circuit, and fry. Your house via electric, phone and cable wires is connected, like all the rest of us into the power and communications grids. This energy surge will destroy all delicate electronics in your home, even as it destroys all the major components all the way back to the power company's generators and the phone company's main relays. In far less than a millisecond the entire power grid of the United States, and all that it supports will be destroyed.

In point of fact the EMP thus generated comes in three successive pulses: E1 is the super-fast high-voltage pulse that bypasses surge protectors, which are designed to stop pulses that build up slowly, and fries all affected electronics. E2 is akin to the electromagnetic charge emitted as lightning strikes; they are low frequency and ordinarily would not get past surge protectors, except that with E1 having fried the protective equipment E2, like a burglar who enters an open door, gets in. E3 is akin to the geomagnetic storms generated by solar flares: it is en extremely low frequency pulse that lasts tens, even hundreds of seconds. Though weaker, because of its duration it builds up enough strength to knock out large components like electric grid power transformers, and reaches deep into the ground. (One significant exception: fiber-optic links are unaffected, because optical frequencies lie outside the ranger of EMP frequencies; but computers and telephones, etc. are electrical, and will be hit.)

EMP effects generated by nuclear blasts in the 1950s were not noticed, as the blasts were low-altitude detonations. But in 1962 both the United States and the Soviet Union conducted high altitude tests. The American test, "Starfish Prime," detonated a 1.44 megaton bomb 250 miles above the Pacific Ocean; electrical damage was caused in Hawaii, 800 miles away. Though smaller in scale, the Soviet "K Project" tests, a series of three 300-kiloton blasts over Kazakhstan, caused far greater damage, including a power plant fire.

Why did the American test of a bomb nearly five times as powerful as the Soviet blasts cause less collateral damage? The Earth's magnetic field, which is perturbed by EMP (the so-called Compton Effect, named after its discoverer, physicist Arthur), is far stronger over land than over water. EMP effects are also non-linear with yield: pulse intensity does not scale with warhead yield. In other words, a Hiroshima size blast (14 kilotons -- less than 1/20th the K Project yields and less than 1/100th that of Starfish Prime -- will do very nicely. Indeed, counter-intuitively, a hydrogen bomb (thermonuclear fusion), with yields in the megaton range, short-circuits by "pre-ionization" -- an ion is created when an electron is added or subtracted from an atom or molecule (agglomeration of atoms); the H-bomb blast generates a negative pre-ionization that negates the positive EMP charge -- most of its own EMP effect. H-bombs thus cause less EMP damage than the less powerful A-bomb (atomic fission), whose yields run in kilotons. EMP effects do not result from deep space detonations, because the gamma ray emissions dissipate long before reaching the Earth's magnetic field. Low-altitude nuclear detonations generate vast blast, heat and radiation damage, but as they explode below most of the Earth's magnetic field and thus generate minimal EMP.

What happens when the nation's electric and communications infrastructures are destroyed? Put simply, America would return in an instant to 1875, before Thomas Edison's gave us electric power. We have seen in the past six months how devastating the failure of our financial networks is. Compared to what EMP will do, a financial meltdown is a Sunday picnic in the park.

Your lights won't work. Your phones won't work. Your computers won't work. Your fax machines won't work. Neither will your televisions, radios or other electric appliances -- think ovens, no-gas stoves, refrigerators, heating, ventilating and air conditioning, cars made in the past 30 years. Forget about modern hospital services. Food delivery will stall. Restaurants will close. So will grocery stores. Planes and trains and buses won't run. Planes in the air when hit will have to land under visual flight rules -- possible on clear days, as radar won't work; only if they have hydraulic back-up will they even fly -- in the air, without non-electric controls, they will plummet to earth like meteors. At any given moment on a typical day, there are several thousand airliners aloft, carrying, on average, 75 passengers.

Recovery will take at minimum months, perhaps more than one year. Unlike local disasters such a Hurricane Katrina, there would be little "edge" community assistance -- healthy neighbors helping those in distress. If thousands die at first, millions would ultimately die. Trillions in economic wealth would disappear as economic activity grinds to a halt. International aid would be late and limited. Widespread anarchy -- looting, home raids -- could persist in defiance of martial law.

After a slow start, with ominous hints at evils to come, Fortschen's book picks up the pace near the halfway mark. His protagonist lives in a small town near Asheville, North Carolina. He sees civil order rapidly breaking down. Two junkies loot a nursing home, leaving residents dying gruesomely for want of medication. They are executed publicly, to make a point about martial law and protecting the weak. Two small towns face a deliberately engineered forced exodus of thousands of hippies from Asheville (now a hippie Mecca). The towns form a medieval war alliance to share resources, guard two highway bottlenecks, and try to keep the growing refugee flow passing through. They threaten Asheville with cutoff of water reservoir supply, which is located in one of the towns, if Asheville does not stop encouraging refugees to leave. The isolated locals learn that the national government is virtually non-functioning; Air Force One took off with the President on board but crashed when its anti-EMP protection failed; the Secretary of State, fourth in line of succession, is President. Confirmation comes weeks after the attack.

Critical to the desperation felt by struggling communities post-attack is lack of communication with the larger world:

"People are hungry, scared. We are spoiled unlike any other generation in history, and we forgot completely just how dependent we were on the juice flowing through the wires, the buttons doing something when we pushed them. If only we had some communication. If only we knew the government still worked, a voice that we trusted being heard, that would make all the difference.

"My grandfather used to tell me how back during the Depression the banks started to collapse; there was panic, even the scent of revolution in the air. And then FDR got on the radio, just one radio talk, reminding us we were all neighbors, to cooperate and help each other, and though the Depression went on for seven more years, the panic ended.

"Same thing on nine-eleven. I think it's the silence that is driving people crazy now. No one knows what is going on, what is being done, if we are indeed at war, and if so, who we are fighting and whether we are winning or losing. We are as isolated now as someone living in Europe seven hundred years ago and there is a rumor, just a rumor, that the Tartars are coming or there is a plague in the next village."

The towns are gravely imperiled when a barbarian horde, a collection of gangbangers, escaped jailbirds, junkies and other underclass elements invade their secluded nook. In a climactic savage battle the townspeople defeat the invaders, but the victory is Pyrrhic. One year after the EMP strike, the hero learns that America has lost 90 percent of its population, most to starvation and disease, and has splintered into primitive isolated communities, fatally wounded, never to recover. All caused by three missiles launched from freighters in the Gulf of Mexico, detonating small nukes over Utah, Kansas and Ohio. The attacker remains unknown. In an eerie coda, the book ends with America's coastlines under siege by prowling pirates.

All of which raises four questions: Who might do this? How can we protect against EMP? What has been done so far? Should more be done? As to the first, rogue states like Iran and North Korea are prime candidates. Iran, with its revolutionary zeal and theological messianism, has the motivation; its missile program is far along, with several medium-range missiles already operational, barge launches in the Caspian Sea, and its nuclear program proceeding apace as the West dithers in fruitless negotiations. North Korea is another prospect, but further off. Russia and China could easily do this, but have no desire to risk a major war with the United States. Terrorists would love EMP, but cannot do ballistic missiles.

We can protect against EMP with a combination of passive and active defenses. Passive includes hardening surge protectors and electronics, and storing emergency supplies (including canned foods and medicine). Stockpiling backup equipment for the electric and communications grids, trucks, trains and planes is vital. Active defenses include missile defense and pre-emptive military strikes against nuclear and missile facilities. With five dozen Aegis missile defense cruisers and a small set of land-based missiles, we have made a modest start. Much more is needed for a layered defense that can intercept missiles in their boost (takeoff) phase, in mid-flight and in the terminal (near impact) phase. The Airborne Laser, carried aloft in a modified 747, could intercept missiles launched from a ship at sea; one is in production, but a second plane was canceled. Israel may decide to take care of Iran's threat for a few years. Mostly, though, our leaders prefer to think about the crises they face now -- at present a rather nasty set. EMP is too distant, its risk too problematic, and hopes for other, cheaper ways to avoid massive loss of human life and trillions of dollars of financial ruin are seized upon as excuses to do less.

One Second After is a fine effort in the tradition of the great 1950s nuclear war scenario novels, depicting life in a small town after disaster strikes, as civilization slowly unravels. But Fortschen's war scenario is far more credible, and thus more gripping. Thrillers such as Nevil Shute's On the Beach and Pat Frank's Alas, Babylon assumed spasmodic all-out "bolt from the blue" nuclear wars, without human agency intervening to stop global obliteration. While that was conceivable it never was likely. An EMP attack would in fact be a series of lethal bolts from the blue. And given the fanaticism afoot in the world and dispersion of lethal technology, the prospect of an EMP catastrophe is more credible than the world blowing itself up.

The author over-reaches in one area. He is simply wrong as to modern airplanes -- let alone Air Force One -- crashing for want of non-electronic backup. In fact, all major modern airliners and regional jets carry hydraulic backup. Hydraulic systems are driven by pressurized fluid power. They are unaffected by EMP, or other electrical interference. EMP would zap electrical systems and radar, but planes could fly on hydraulic power and land under visual flight rules, weather permitting. Spacing of landing aircraft would be a problem. Planes will not, as the author implies, simply plummet from the sky. Thus EMP will not crash Air Force One.

If Fortschen's casualty projection is thought credible by the likes of Iran, might not fanatical mullahs decide that killing the Great Satan is worth enduring massive retaliation? In 2001, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former President and still a power in Iran's leadership circle, said that he would happily trade 15 million Iranians to kill 5 million Israelis. How many would he trade to kill 270 million of us?

Forstchen's book is being made into a movie by Warner Brothers. As a horror flick, it will make one yearn for the good old days of Jason in his hockey puck mask, looking for a young lovely to dispatch with those nasty scissors.

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About the Author

John C. Wohlstetter is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, author of Sleepwalking With the Bomb, and founder of the issues blog Letter From the Capitol.