FSO Editorials

by Sam Cohen and Joseph D. Douglass, Jr.
April 28 2004

The Washington Post in a front-page article this morning states that the U.S. intelligence community is on the verge of raising its estimate of the number of bombs produced by North Korea from �possibly two� to �at least eight.� This action is buttressed by an estimate by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) that North Korea has the capability of producing 4 to 8 nuclear warheads per year now and that this will increase to 13 per year within a decade. In considering these numbers, the reader is advised that national security analysts have believed that strong ties linking the IISS with the CIA have existed for several decades. Nevertheless, the threat to the United States posed by a North Korean capability of only a couple of nuclear warheads is immensely significant, orders of magnitude beyond the terrorist threat posed by Iraq or al-Qaeda.

For decades, it has been known that a nuclear warhead burst in the very upper reaches of the Earth�s atmosphere (e.g., 100,000 to 200,000 feet) can produce highly disruptive electrical and electronic damage at the surface of the earth over very large areas. This damage results from the generation of a so-called Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) which consists of powerful radio frequency waves produced by an electric current resulting from the emanation of enormous amounts of nuclear radiation from the explosion which in turn creates a widespread and vastly powerful radio transmitter.

The extent of the damage at the surface is a function of the yield of the warhead and its height of burst, but for a very large and extended urban area such as Los Angeles, San Francisco or New York, even a warhead at the kiloton level can produce a disastrous level of damage to our electrical and electronic infrastructure ranging from temporary to permanent, depending upon the equipment. For example, a yield of a few kilotons burst, at say an altitude of 125,000 feet, could render large urban and high tech industrial areas, such as California�s silicon valley, useless over a prolonged period until repairs and almost complete electronic chip replacements in some cases are provided.

From the perspective of North Korea, such a weapon may represent a �morally acceptable� action to take against the United States because it would result in little, if any, loss of life (aircraft in flight would probably crash and life sustaining medical equipment would fail). It would primarily cause a serious disruption in the fabric of our society. As such, it represents the ultimate neutron bomb: both people and buildings are spared.

For a nation such as North Korea, a nuclear EMP weapon could constitute a very effective nuclear deterrent against possible attack by the United States, which might be considering a pre-emptive non-nuclear attack such as it waged against Iraq. In fact, it is distinctly possible that in the very near future North Korea will have the capability to produce a significant number of such attacks against the U.S., the threat of which should give great pause to a U.S. president in considering a replay of the Iraq scenario. Even worse to contemplate would be a pre-emptive attack by North Korea on the U.S. where such an attack would likely not result in the direct loss of life of a single American, thus leaving the U.S. President in a quandary as to how the U.S. would or should respond.

In saying that such a deterrent (attack) is possible, it is necessary to examine North Korea's warhead and missile delivery systems; not so much in the light of U.S. intelligence estimates, which have proved far less than adequate over the years, especially in the case of North Korea, but rather in the context of what we know technology can provide toward allowing North Korea to attain such a capability. Let us start with its nuclear warheads � what kind and how many? From the very beginning, the U.S., in time-honored �mirror image� fashion, has assumed that North Korea's nuclear warheads are of the same general design as the first U.S. warhead to have been tested (in New Mexico in July 1945) and dropped over Nagasaki, Japan. This was a so-called implosion warhead weighing about 5000 pounds and triggered by a spherical high explosive lens configuration about 5 feet in diameter whose purpose was to compress and "ignite" approximately 6 kilograms of �weapons grade� plutonium, yielding about 20 kilotons (KT) TNT equivalent.

After the war, when it became apparent that the Cold War was on in earnest and the Soviets detonated their first implosion device in 1949 (several years ahead of U.S. intelligence estimates), the Los Alamos laboratory significantly intensified their efforts, and in short order, using new and advanced technologies, the size, weight, fissile material investment and yield had been reduced to a remarkable degree. For example, by the mid-1950s an implosion warhead, known as the Davy Crockett weapon system, had been developed for battlefield use which was roughly the size of a soccer ball, weighed approximately 50 pounds, used about one-third the amount of plutonium as in the Nagasaki bomb and could yield as much as a few kilotons.

What a difference a decade can make if bright scientists and engineers apply their dedication to improving nuclear warhead technology. We should also keep in mind that this took place about a half-century ago when technology was a far cry from that of today. As for North Korea, who undoubtedly has been assisted by the USSR and Red China over the years, the availability of small, light weight, low to medium yield warheads cannot be ruled out by arbitrary politically driven U.S. intelligence. However, whether they have requirements for such small, relatively low-yield devices to be employed in their longer-ranged ballistic missiles, is another matter related to how they might wish to employ them.

Based upon our assessment of their current and projected missile systems, were they to desire full EMP coverage over the United States, from Los Angeles to New York, it is technologically feasible and thus cannot objectively be ruled out. Very frequently mentioned in the family of North Korean medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) is the currently operational No-dong, which uses a liquid propellant and can deliver a payload of roughly 1500 pounds out to a range of approximately 1000 miles. As for the missile performance, this is something U.S. technical intelligence can reasonably assess. Regarding the nuclear warhead it might carry, this is far more a matter of conjecture (spelled �political prejudice�) than hard intelligence, meaning that our assessment of this warhead is driven far more by politics than technical integrity. This is the �unthinkable� area of nuclear Armageddon, which is not taken too seriously by the U.S. government and to a large extent by the nation as a whole.

However, to buttress the case being made here let us suppose that the warhead weight of the No-dong payload is 100 pounds. At this level, not only can a yield at the low-kiloton level be produced but the plutonium investment could be very substantially reduced so that for a given stockpile of plutonium, which need not be of the very high quality �weapons grade� material that the U.S. uses, thus a substantially larger number of warheads could be produced over a given time thereby substantially increasing the number of EMP warhead delivery systems � enough to provide as large an EMP capability as North Korea desires or requires. But this is a problem of North Korea's making, not the U.S. which to date, after decades of understanding the problem, has refused to grapple with it in any serious way.

How many nuclear warheads does North Korea possess? We really don't know; estimates have varied from a likely one or two, but the possibility of a handful has not been ruled out. Using U.S. warhead technology of relatively ancient vintage, there is no reason to rule out the possibility of one or two dozen kiloton warheads, now or in the very near future. It is as likely that the U.S. estimates of the threat posed by North Korea underestimates the problem as much as their estimates overestimated the Iraq threat in 2002.

A few years ago it was estimated that within the bounds of our intelligence capabilities, that between 12 and 36 No-dong missiles were operational. If, however, this missile was appropriately modified, using sharply reduced payload weight, its range might be extended to the ICBM category with a significant number (perhaps all) being nuclear. That this modification has been underway for several years is also included in numerous estimates of North Korean capabilities. What is not pointed out in any of these estimates that we have examined, is the ease in extending the range. Here, two factors are invariably overlooked. First, if the size of the warhead payload is significantly reduced, as suggested above, the range of the missile is extended in an equally significant manner. This is precisely what would happen if one replaced the heavy payloads most often associated with such missiles by small, lightweight nuclear payloads. Second, while the difficulties in producing accurate missile guidance components increases as the range increases, this is not the case if all you want to do is produce a high-altitude EMP explosion. In this case, the guidance system in existence for their short-range missiles is more than adequate. Indeed, all you need to do is point the missile in the right direction and then use a timer to set-off the detonation of the warhead. If its accuracy is even five miles off course that would be irrelevant where you are targeting a large metropolitan area.

If instead of using the nuclear weapons to create massive physical destruction and radioactive contamination at the surface of the earth, some fraction were detonated at a very high altitude to produce widespread EMP effects the results could be calamitous for the U.S. infrastructure and technological industrial base. One should also keep in mind that as of now and into the foreseeable future, the U.S. will have no ballistic missile defense against such high altitude EMP attacks, other than to stage a preemptive nuclear strike, accurate intelligence permitting: at best a dubious proposition, with enormous political drawbacks. The only credible option might be to wage a surprise conventional strike on the North to deal with the threat of an attack on the South. However, aware of this possibility, North Korea might, and perhaps would, with this possibility in mind, warn the U.S. that a preemptive non-nuclear attack on them, no matter how discriminate, would produce nuclear EMP attacks on major U.S. cities.

Deterrence is in the eyes of the beholders, but it is difficult to imagine a U.S. president, taking in mind the consequences for his country, launching a strategic nuclear weapons attack on North Korea. It should also be noted that there are no longer any battlefield nuclear weapons in the U.S. arsenal. To many if not most Americans (and the world as well), the scenario described here should not be dismissed from U.S. planning and the most serious thought should be given to this problem by the U.S. government, not only with North Korea in mind but other emerging �rogue� nuclear nations.

Now that North Korea has made it very clear that they intend to proceed with their nuclear weapons program and even begin testing of such devices, perhaps the best tack it could take is to test out a low-yield nuclear device someplace high over the vast expanse of the North Pacific, far away from any populated areas and invite the world to witness it and evaluate its effects against a wide variety of electrical and electronic equipment. Except for the EMP, no other significant effects would exist at the surface below the burst or any other place on Earth.

What would world reaction be to such a proposal? We�ll never know until it is made. While to really get the attention of the world's leaders, a test demonstrating the capability is probably needed, for a small, minimum yield warhead capability, the test could be conducted underground in secrecy, without our knowing, if that has not already been done. Here, it is also useful to keep in mind the advice tendered a few years back by Edward Teller that the hardest thing today about building a bomb is make one that won't work. Nevertheless, it is quite obvious that in staging such a test, North Korea would put itself on the nuclear weapons map in a very meaningful, if not spectacular, way. To gain a meaningful nuclear deterrent, a nation doesn't have to threaten the massive thermonuclear response major nuclear powers have been doing for so many years.

Almost all of the current discussions of the North Korean nuclear threat have been directed at the concerns of either the North Korean threat of proliferating nuclear materials (Plutonium or weapons grade enriched Uranium) to other states or entities such as they have done with their missile exports, or of simply arming themselves with nuclear tipped missiles to threaten their neighbors. North Korean nuclear tipped missiles with very small single warheads designed to provide high altitude airbursts could potentially threaten the Unites States homeland itself through the production of wide scale electromagnetic pulses (EMP) to attack the electrical and electronic industrial infrastructure of the United States producing a mostly non-lethal electronic Pearl Harbor. Of all the countries in the world, the United States is probably the most dependant upon its electrical (power grids) and electronic infrastructure (computers, the internet, ATM�s, automobiles, radios, TV, cell phones and such) and industrial base (numerically controlled machines), thus making the United States potentially the most vulnerable to EMP attack. What should or could the United States do to blunt this potential nightmare threat? And is this potential EMP threat closer to reality than any of us realize? How will the President of the United States grapple with what we believe to be a very real potential threat to the United States and its allies on the Pacific Rim, and do so while moving towards a peaceful outcome?

If the above remarks respecting the significance of the informally announced revision upwards of U.S. intelligence estimates of North Korean nuclear capabilities are not in themselves moderately disturbing, we would like to point out that this EMP threat is only one of three major �new� threats to U.S. national security. First, the terrorist implications are staggering. North Korea is one of the leading terrorist states with a long history of terrorist attacks in other nations. The North Korean possession of several small-yield nuclear weapons for hand delivery by trained terrorist/saboteurs exceeds by any measure the al-Qaeda provocation. Second, as a direct result of the above capability, the United States is suddenly totally vulnerable to a massive first strike by either China or Russia or in combination. Never has the United States been so at risk. The third problem is much less. That is the possibility that North Korea may sell or trade warheads, nuclear material, or know-how to other terrorist nations or groups.

If there is reader interest in these implications of the new North Korean nuclear estimate, we will address them in future articles. In the meantime, to gain further insight into what now confronts us, see our previous concerns as published here last year.

See prior articles by Sam T. Cohen, Ph.D. and Joseph D. Douglass, Jr., Ph.D.
The Nuclear Threat That Doesn't Exist - Or Does It? posted 3/11/2003
Development of New Low-Yield Nuclear Weapons
posted 3/09/2003
The Rogue Nuclear Threat
posted 4/12/02

© 2004 Joseph D. Douglass, Jr.
Editorial Archive

Joseph D. Douglass, Jr., Ph.D., is a defense analyst, author of The Soviet Theater Nuclear Offensive and co-author of CBW: The Poor Man�s Atomic Bomb and America the Vulnerable: The Threat of Chemical and Biological Warfare. His most recent books are Red Cocaine: The Drugging of America andBetrayed: The Story of America's Missing POWs.

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