Magazine article National Defense

Nation's Info Infrastructure Vulnerable to Nuclear Pulse

Magazine article National Defense

Nation's Info Infrastructure Vulnerable to Nuclear Pulse

Article excerpt

At 5:15 p.m. EDT-peak ground and air traffic hour in the nation's capitol-the emergency alert system (EAS) announces that "this is not a test" and that citizens are to take appropriate action.

Since no one knows what to make of the EAS or understands what appropriate action is, or believes in the possibility of another challenge to U.S. sovereignty, the announcement is regarded with resounding skepticism.

By 5:25 p.m. any electronic systems with integrated circuits in wide swaths of the continental United States are overwhelmed as a tidal wave of electrons flood their circuitry degrading proper functions.

In space, unhardened low earth orbit satellite systems are damaged. Communications are disrupted. Traffic lights in the Washington, D.C., metro area temporarily fail bringing traffic to a standstill. This causes scores of traffic fatalities.

Aircraft, so dependent on the integrated circuits that guide them, now on approach or take-off from Reagan National Airport, lose guidance and take erratic, evasive maneuvers to avoid collision but it's too little, too late. Two airliners collide over the Potomac near Georgetown.

Metro rail and Amtrak accidents abound as switching functions are hindered just long enough to cause devastating crashes under the river near the Arlington junction leading to the Pentagon, and at Union Station in Washington. A similar scene is being played out in other urban areas across the United States.

By 5:30 p.m., police, fire and medical crews are attempting to respond to the disasters within the larger catastrophe that has now been classified by the president as an attack against the nation's information infrastructure by a high altitude electromagnetic pulse (HEMP) that was generated by a single detonation of a nuclear device approximately 300 kilometers above the continental United States.

Government and military officials take pains to separate the actual nuclear detonation from the subsequent HEMP because technically this is not a nuclear attack on the United States, but rather an application of electronic warfare.

However classified, it leaves the world's economic engine blind and powerless. The price for failing to adequately harden the information infrastructure is paid in domestic fatalities and trillions of dollars in domestic and international economic losses.

According to Joan Ma Pierre of the electronics and systems directorate in the Defense Special Weapons Agency (DSWA), the threat of a nefarious and violent use of the electromagnetic spectrum is one that should be taken seriously.

"Nuclear proliferation is still an issue and nuclear scenarios in which one or a few devices are used by a less capable adversary should be studied," she said.

Developing a Shield

DSWA, since its creation in 1947 when it was chartered as the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project, has engaged in a variety of national security tasks ranging from a BritishU.S. effort in 1948 to convince adversaries that atomic weapons were forward deployed "when they were not" to nuclear treaty compliance and monitoring in the 1990's.

Although DSWA has many significant nuclear-related missions, one of its key functions is to ensure that there is sufficient technical capability within the Defense Department and in the defense industrial base to develop mitigation and hardening techniques to handle the effects that might come from a HEMP and other nuclear radiation events.

Part of that task includes raising the level of public awareness to the possibility of this threat materializing. It is a difficult job.

"Our responsibility is to get accurate information on this issue to policy makers and others that need it," said Pierre. 'The decline in defense industry has given rise to a reluctance to focus on things nuclear. Issues such as these are out of the public view, but they and decision makers should understand that the weapons are still there. …

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