March 30, 2009

Constant Vigilance or Plain Old Paranoia?

I have been sitting over here in Japan watching the huge foofaraw over North Korea's impending launch of a satellite wondering what all the fuss was about. Their one nuke test failed badly and while a couple tons of high explosive can do some serious damage, it falls far short of the damage potential in a one kiloton tactical nuclear warhead, let alone something much larger. The Taepodong-2 missile North Korea has recently positioned on a launch pad would have to have a payload far below a single ton in order to reach any country outside its immediate neighbors (Japan, Russia, China, South Korea) so while Japan needs to be worried, I couldn't understand why Secretary of State Clinton was all up in arms.

It seems I'd forgotten about a much more modern, much lighter, much more deadly payload: the EMP.

Over at, however, Newt Gingrich is reminding all of us that anyone who can put a satellite in orbit can also put an EMP device anywhere in the world:

On Feb. 3, Iran launched a “communications satellite” into orbit. At this very moment, North Korea is threatening to do the same. The ability to launch an alleged communications satellite belies a far more frightening truth. A rocket that can carry a satellite into orbit also can drop a nuclear warhead over any location on the planet in less than 45 minutes.

Far too many timid or uninformed sources maintain that a single launch of a missile poses no true threat to the United States, given our retaliatory power.

A reality check is in order and must be discussed in response to such an absurd claim: In fact, one small nuclear weapon, delivered by an ICBM can destroy the United States by maximizing the effect of the resultant electromagnetic pulse upon detonation.

So, in short, if North Korea, Iran, or some other ill-mannered nation could get their hands on a half-ton nuclear device (such as a left-over Soviet-era tactical nuke) and then modify it to both maximize the EMP effect and to fit on top their "satellite-capable rocket", they have suddenly become just as dangerous as any nation in the world with a full-on nuclear arsenal numbering in the tens of thousands.

Well, okay. Newt does have a valid point. There is a very real danger that a small nation with the capability to launch satellites could fire off an EMP at Europe, the United States, Canada, Japan, the western half of Russia, South Korea, China, or some other G-8 or G-20 nation and cause widespread damage to the modern world. If they were to target Singapore, Hong Kong, New York, London, Tokyo, Shanghai, Taipei, Brussels, or some other city that functions as a key clearinghouse for financial transactions, then they could bring down our currently faltering economy with a single stroke. If they wait until the economy has recovered, they could throw us right back into a global economic state similar to the current depression.

Of course, doing so would hurt the developing nation even worse than it would hurt the developed nations, but if a national leader is sadistic enough, desperate enough, angry enough, or self-sacrificing enough to throw his own country back into the stone age, then deploying such an attack might prove very attractive. On the other hand, for someone like the Taliban or Iranian Ayatollahs, the stone age is the preferred level of industrial development anyway. In their case I imagine they would fire off their EMP device the very same day they readied it. We would have no warning, and no advance notice of any kind because their planning phase would be minimal, probably only a matter of a few days. Far too short a time for modern intelligence networks to pick up the scattered data indicating an imminent attack and put the pieces together.

When considering all of this it is also important to consider the likelihood of it actually happening. To my mind, it is no less likely (and no more likely!) than Yellowstone's Caldera or one of the other super volcanoes blowing their top without warning, a planetesimal or cometary impact out of nowhere, an unexpected shift or collapse of the world's magnetic sphere, or even the bombarding of the earth by a cataclysmic solar storm. The possibility of any of these disasters is relatively equivalent, meaning that sooner or later all of them will happen but the likelihood of any one of them happening in the lifetime of a given individual (such as you or me) is almost zero.

Constant vigilance as an attitude and approach to life has fallen into disfavor in modern times. Nowadays if a person is constantly on the alert for external threats to their person, their family, or their property, we call them "paranoid". The problem that arises is that a complete lack of vigilance is exactly what makes tragedies like mass shootings and terrorist strikes possible. We need to be aware that our world is, in truth, a very dangerous place. While the odds of any one individual being caught up in something catastrophic is minimal, everyday someone, somewhere faces some kind of unexpected danger. The only sure way to avoid becoming a victim is to practice constant vigilance and be aware that anything is possible, even if it is unlikely.

Fortune favors the prepared. It always has, and it always will.