Recently a Senate Judiciary subcommittee of which I am chairman held a hearing on a major threat to the American people, one that could come not only from terrorist organizations such as al Qaeda but from rogue nations such as Iran and North Korea.
An electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack on the American homeland, said one of the distinguished scientists who testified at the hearing, is one of only a few ways that the United States could be defeated by its enemies -- terrorist or otherwise. And it is probably the easiest. A single Scud missile, carrying a single nuclear weapon, detonated at the appropriate altitude, would interact with the Earth's atmosphere, producing an electromagnetic pulse radiating down to the surface at the speed of light. Depending on the location and size of the blast, the effect would be to knock out already stressed power grids and other electrical systems across much or even all of the continental United States, for months if not years.
Too farfetched? Here's an earlier post on Iran placing missiles on merchant hulls. And Scribbles has other links on his post that relate to the topic.
How EMP weapons work here and an August 2004 Heritage report here:
An EMP attack damages all unprotected electronic equipment within the blast's "line of sight" (the EMP's "footprint" on the earth's surface). The size of the footprint is determined by the altitude of the explosion. The higher the altitude, the greater the land area affected. A Scud-type ballistic missile launched from a vessel in U.S. coastal waters and detonated at an altitude of 95 miles could degrade electronic systems across one-quarter of the United States. A more powerful missile launched from North Korea could probably deliver a warhead 300 miles above America--enough to degrade the electronic systems across the entire continental United States.Need more? A July 2004 Missile Threat.com warning:
Such an attack would not require state-of-the-art missiles. Neither high accuracy nor a long range would be necessary. On the contrary, the report notes, terrorists or state actors could deliver an EMP attack with a “relatively unsophisticated missile.” And yet today, we remain defenseless against even an “unsophisticated” missile attack. It is worth noting that although the EMP threat from “terrorism” and “non-state actors” figure prominently in the report, Reuters’ reporting mentions neither, and notes only that North Korea and Iran could be seeking such a capability.It's that old asymmetrical warfare thing again...