DN - Defence Notes

North Korean EMP attack ‘unlikely’

20th September 2017 - 12:09 GMT | by Wendell Minnick in Taipei


It has been the subject of speculation in novels, news stories and analysis papers for decades. An enemy state uses a nuclear electromagnetic pulse (NEMP) or high-altitude electromagnetic pulse (HEMP) device to knock out electronics in an enemy’s area of operations. 

A nuclear bomb could detonate either in space, destroying satellites, or high above a city or enemy force (such as an aircraft carrier group) and burn out electronic components, thus turning the clock back to the stone ages.

It might be a clever idea for a country that lives basically in the stone ages, such as North Korea, and which does not rely on expensive electronic weapon systems. 

However, US military weapons are normally EMP-proof and any detonation of a nuclear weapon, whether in space or high above the target – even if it caused no kinetic damage to buildings or people – would still be considered a nuclear attack by the US with the same consequences.

‘Would we retaliate with nuclear weapons? I believe President Trump is sending the message that we would,’ said Mark Schneider, senior analyst at the Washington-based National Institute for Public Policy. 

‘That is good news from the standpoint of deterrence. Deterrence has to be credible and a lack of will undercuts it. We also need the right type of weapons. I hope the [2018 Pentagon] Nuclear Posture Review takes a good look at what we need.’

Mark Stokes, executive director of the Washington-based Project 2049 Institute, agrees. ‘Presumably, any use of a nuclear weapon, HEMP or otherwise, against US territory and forces and those of our allies would be met with a response in kind.’

The military considers a high-altitude nuclear detonation as a ‘low-likelihood, high-impact’ event, said Nicholas Eftimiades, formerly chief of the US Defense Intelligence Agency’s space division. A high-altitude strike on space satellites would be ‘indiscriminate and would disable many of the satellites in a particular orbital regime and those in view of the event’. 

North Korea is very unlikely to use this form of attack as it would impact satellites from all nations, he said. ‘The North Korean regime might consider this type of attack as a last act of defiance if facing regime collapse due to external forces.’

Schneider said North Korea could successfully carry out a high-altitude nuclear detonation, and although the US has missile defence capabilities that could prevent this, they are nowhere near as effective as they would now be if the late Bush administration programme had continued ballistic missile defence programmes.

‘The Obama administration did virtually nothing to reduce our EMP vulnerabilities,’ he said. The possibility of orbiting a nuclear weapon and detonating it in a surprise attack is much higher now than before, he added.

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