If the king of Saudi Arabia were to be invited to the White House, President Obama would make the usual deep bow, have a long conversation with lots of photo ops, and then give the king a grand halal dinner. But it was not a Muslim king who was the honored guest last week. It was the Jewish Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, here to provide the president with another opportunity to embarrass himself and the United States.
There were no handshakes in the White House last week, no negotiations, no photographs, no joint statements, and definitely no kosher dinner. Just the presentation of a list of demands, take it or leave it. When the stunned Netanyahu hesitated, the president left the room, saying, “Let me know if there are any changes. I’ll be around.” Then mainstream media obliged their White House masters, as usual, with a complete news blackout. It was as if the leader of the only democracy in the Middle East had never been in town.
What was the prime minister thinking as he ate his dinner on the plane taking him home? Did his thoughts go back to the days of atmospheric tests of nuclear weapons, and what they might mean to Israel today?
In 1962, at Johnson Island in the Pacific, the United States conducted a test code-named Starfish Prime. A nuclear device was to be detonated in near space, 260 miles above the island, and instruments were ready to monitor effects on the ionosphere. When the 1-megaton explosion flared there was no radiation or blast felt on the island below. Instead, a man-made aurora borealis appeared and an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) knocked out streetlights and a communications microwave link in Hawaii—930 miles away! The age of EMP weapons had begun.
The Soviet Union’s spies told Moscow about Starfish Prime and the effects of the EMP pulse. The Soviets, worried about underground bunkers built to house the government and command centers in the event of a nuclear war, conducted their own tests. They were horrified. The EMP pulse could fry computers, communications, and all kinds of electrical equipment on the surface and hidden far underground. Our own concern was heightened when Russia shared that data with us during the happy days of Perestroika. The Pentagon began to take steps to harden key military equipment against EMP, like ICBM silos and Air Force One.
The next shoe dropped in 1998, when Iran tested missiles fired from a barge in the Caspian that exploded a hundred miles above the surface. The Iranians knew about EMP too, and were making plans to menace any nation they could reach from a cargo ship as soon as they had the necessary nuclear warheads. Concerned at last, Congress established a commission in 2001 to examine the potential damage to the United States from an EMP attack. The final report was published in 2008, and the news was not good. Attacked by EMP weapons, the United States infrastructure would suffer catastrophic and irreversible damage—unless defensive preparations were made. The cost for hardening vulnerable things such as electrical power transmission lines, communications, and computer-controlled systems like refineries and water supplies would cost billions of dollars. Speeches were made, but expensive action was left to disappear from congressional agendas.
EMP, however, did not disappear. It is a hot topic these days, and getting hotter. The signs were evident over 20 years ago:
- Iran tried to buy nuclear warheads from Pakistan as early as 1987.
- Ten years later, Iran tested a sea-launched ICBM capable of delivering an EMP attack.
- Contemplating Israel’s potential use of tactical nuclear weapons, the Center for Strategic and International Studies recently said, “…some believe that nuclear weapons are the only weapons that can destroy targets deep underground…”
- The Heritage Foundation is calling for an EMP Recognition Day to bolster adoption of defensive measures and a national recovery plan.
- US Navy EMP team of engineers, inactive for ten years, has been resurrected and is finding ways to protect the fleet from EMP attacks.