Counter EMP, NKorea Threat With Ballistic Missile Defense Readiness

by AMBASSADOR HENRY F. COOPER December 8, 2017

In last Saturday's interview with Fox News host Bret Baier at the Reagan National Defense Forum, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster said the threat of war with North Korea was "increasing every day" - and he emphasized the need for "significant new actions" to counter the actions of Kim Jong-un.

General McMaster warned that the prospects of a military showdown with Pyongyang are such that "we are in a race . . . to solve this problem - not just us, but the United States, our allies and partners." And he expressed hope that China could deny North Korea the fuel to launch an attack.

This sounds to me like a "triumph of hope over experience," especially since General McMaster's comments at the Reagan Library in Simi California came on the heels of North Korea's latest launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that knowledgeable experts assess to be capable of reaching any U.S. city.

In my opinion, General McMaster understated the immediacy of this threat . . . suggesting that Kim Jong Un's latest was only just another launch and "Whether it's a success or failure isn't as important as understanding that over the years, he's been learning from failures - improving and, thereby, increasing his threat to all of us."

General McMaster is correct, of course, that North Korea - like every nation that has developed ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons - has learned from failures as well as successes. And the North Koreans have been at it since the late 1990s. Their satellites launched in 2012 and 2016 regularly overfly the United States - and the rest of the world.

Thus, his suggestions seem to imply a lack of urgency. The Trump administration may be underestimating just how severe North Korea's already demonstrated capabilities could be.

Some influential "experts" apparently believe North Korea must still demonstrate an ability to integrate a nuclear weapon with a ballistic missile that can survive reentry forces as the nose dives back into the atmosphere on its path to a target city.

But what if North Korea is serious about reaching its announced "strategic goal" of executing an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack - a detonation of a nuclear weapon at high altitude? What test would they conduct to demonstrate that capability, which requires no reentry to the atmosphere?

The Foundation for Resilient Societies addressed this question in an important report released last week, "High Consequence Scenarios for North Korean Atmospheric Nuclear Tests." This report examines five scenarios, and all could have serious consequences. Consider the figure below that illustrates aspects of a high altitude burst near the U.S. Territory of Guam. North Korea has explicitly threatened Guam.


Given the demonstrated range capabilities of North Korean ballistic missiles, such an EMP attack scenario could be employed world wide - including anywhere above the United States. The two circles in the Guam scenario indicate "the line of sight" horizons from nuclear bursts at 40 and 150 kilometers altitude - the possible extents of debilitating EMPs.

The 150 kilometer altitude test scenario in the South Pacific would threaten not only the infrastructure on Guam, including key military infrastructure, but also vulnerable undersea cables upon which commerce in the entire Pacific region depends.

Alternatively, if North Korea detonated a nuclear device at 150 kilometers altitude above New York City, the line-of-sight circle would impact the entire Eastern Seaboard of the United States. EMP effects could shut down our electric power grid for many months, if not indefinitely.

So, it seems clear to me that the "fat is in the fire" already. President Trump does not have months to prepare to block such scenarios - not only test scenarios, but also direct EMP attacks on the United States.

I hope John Gizzi was correct in his Sept. 7, 2017 Newsmax report that President Trump has ordered that we shoot down North Korean ballistic missiles headed toward Guam, Hawaii and the United States.

Just a few days before, I had argued that our current ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems can successfully execute this mission if:

  1. We are prepared to employ fighter aircraft into harm's way to use existing Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM) (to be replaced as soon as possible by interceptors fired from drones) to shoot down these missiles in their boost phase; and
  2. The crews of our Aegis Destroyers and Cruisers near North Korea are trained, prepared and authorized to shoot the missiles down while they are still in their ascent phase.

Also, if our forward sensor systems provide the needed cuing and tracking information, our ground based interceptors in Alaska can shoot down North Korean ICBMs coming over the North Polar regions and those in California can shoot down North Korean ICBMs coming over the South Polar regions.

While we certainly should improve our capabilities - especially by deploying space based ballistic missile defense systems as soon as possible, it is urgent that we assure our existing BMD systems and their crews are ready for a North Korean EMP attack at any time.

We have no time to waste.


A version of this piece also appeared on

Ambassador Henry F. Cooper is Chairman of High Frontier and a former Acquisition Executive for all U.S. ballistic missile defenses.  He also served in several other senior USG acquisition and policy positions, including as President Reagan's Chief Negotiator at the Geneva Defense and Space Talks with the Soviet Union. He is currently focused on helping local, state and federal authorities protect against the natural and manmade EMP threat by building effective ballistic missile defenses and hardening the electric grid. Otherwise, loss of the electric grid would freeze America's "just in time" economy, leaving most Americans without means for survival.


blog comments powered by Disqus

FSM Archives

10 year FSM Anniversary

More in North Korea ( 10 OF 25 ARTICLES )