In the wake of Kim Jong Un’s loud talk from and missile movements within the Hermit Kingdom, there has been much speculation about what he’s actually up to. My own pet theory is that it’s an EMP attack, the sort that would wipe out the electrical grid, fry a great deal of electronic infrastructure, and more or less set us back to 1850 (although we’d have battery-powered devices and personal generators available for a while).
The odds of North Korea actually being able to pull off such an attack successfully remain thankfully low, but even failure shouldn’t leave us too complacent. Here are a number of ways in which such an attack could fall short or be thwarted, and yet not really let us breathe much of a sigh of relief.
- Technical failure: Obviously, such an attack is still a tricky thing to pull off. The missile has the launch, the warhead has to deploy and explode properly. But men are solving technical problems all the time, and the easiest ones to solve are those that have already been solved by someone else.
- Our Countermeasures Discourage the Attack: In part, this is a variant of the last. Technical countermeasures, such as THAAD, are always subject to technical solutions. In part, it’s also a strategic thinning of our defenses, since once up, we’ll never really be able to let these stand down.
- THAAD: This is probably the best option. In war, our actually using a weapon is an intelligence coup for the enemy, and don’t think there aren’t other enemies who’ll be looking. But a THAAD intercept from a forward deployment won’t tell them much they don’t already know, since THAAD has been around for a while. And a successful intercept of a presumed attack launch provides a lot of pretext go ahead and bomb all sorts of North Korean missile and nuclear facilities. It also suggests they don’t have a real warhead (since an EMP attack is a high-altitude explosion), making a nuclear response to a sustained bombing campaign not a credible threat.
- Our ASAT: We actually have tested several successful anti-satellite systems, most famously the plane-launched ASAT in the 1980s, most recently a ship-based weapon designed to send a message of deterrence to the Chinese. My understanding is that the tracking needed for this weapons to work reliable will only work once the warhead is no longer being boosted, so it’s kind of a last line of defense. You would always rather hit things earlier rather than later, since that cedes far less of the actual attack timeline to the enemy.
- Chinese ASAT: We could also be talking to the Chinese about their ASAT. Or having the Chinese talk to the Norks about their ASAT. This is probably the worst option, since even if the weapon isn’t actually used, it puts our defense in the hands of a primary adversary.
A word about ASAT weapons in general. The administration has historically been very cool on the idea of ASATs, mostly for the same ideological reasons that lead it to think that unilateral nuclear disarmament is a good idea. In 2011, they were talking ASAT limitations with the EU – as though the EU were our major worry on that front. One hopes that, just as the current crisis has led them to rethink their position on missile defense, it has also led them to reconsider their position on ASAT weapons.
Ultimately, my own feeling is that an EMP attack remains an extraordinarily cost-effective temptation for the Norkos or the Iranians to try against us. The failure, defeat, or deterrence of one attack shouldn’t lead us to be complacent about what can happen, or the need to harden our power generation infrastructure against a future assault.