03 August 2011

Self-reliant news: Is an EMP attack really a possibility? (part 2 of 2)

In part 1 of this post, we looked at two articles representing opposite opinions on the likelihood of an EMP attack on America. When considering articles like these, I also try to consider the author, their possible motives, and how they substantiate their work. In this part of the post, we'll take a look at these factors for both articles.

The Washington Times article (Iranian missiles could soon reach U.S. shores) is an opinion piece, but is written by an an ex-CIA agent who spent time in Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. This lends some credence to his viewpoint, since he has (presumably) operated in military and intelligence circles. As a book author, Kahlili could be be going for sensationalism to increase book sales, but it's not overt if that's the case. Furthermore, the fact that he is providing direct quotes gives his piece authenticity. This is the kind of thing I look for in an article.

However, it is a bit weak in citing much in the way of source documents or further reading. Because I've done a fair bit of homework on EMP attacks, I was already familiar with the threat. To be fair, the point of the article is to point out that it's probable that Iran is working toward the capability of a nuclear or EMP attack; it was not an EMP primer, so to speak.

For an opposing viewpoint, The Atlantic's article (The Campaign to Terrify You About EMP) was written by a graduate student who currently focuses on Iran and nuclear nonproliferation at Yale University. Of course, the fact that he's a graduate student does not make his point of view less valid. However, a lack of direct experience or knowledge means that Disney must support his work by his works cited.

Oddly, when he attributes any quotes, it is only in support of those believing an EMP attack is a valid threat. His sole supporting counterpoint against the threat of EMP is to say that "arms control experts" argue that it's "unlikely" that the entire country's power would instantly fail.

Also questionable is Disney's use of the damage estimates he cites from an EMP study, as well as is the particular study he's chosen. First, the study involved an EMP attack over the Baltimore-Washington-Richmond area, so it's a relatively localized region. It doesn't consider an attack on the entire country as does the 2008 report by the EMP Commission. Aside from that, he indicates that "the effects of an EMP are far from universal," and quotes the estimates of damage as ranging from 5 to 70 percent of electronics.

This is especially misleading, since that study actually lists a range of damage assumptions that were considered for different systems and categories of electronics. In other words, the study considered high, medium, and low estimates, and correlated them with how long it might take to get things back up and running. The report does not (and cannot) provide specific damage estimates, mainly because there are too many variables in what can help or hinder the EMP effect.

Furthermore, the assumptions were for categories and systems of electronics (i.e., the power grid, communications systems, system control and data acquisition elements [SCADA], and electronic appliances). An assumed failure rate for one category can actually have an amplified effect when combined with the failures in others. For example, failures in communications, transportation, and electrical tools makes it much harder to repair any power grid failures. Another possibility is a cascading failure effect. Suppose an EMP attack damages 40 percent of the power grid. That could put sufficient strain on the remaining functional components to cause some portion of them to fail, leading to an even bigger impact on our society.

In the end, I see little in Disney's article that makes me feel safer, or that an EMP is less a threat. His ridicule of the entire concept doesn't invalidate the possibility that it could happen, or indeed that Iran may be actively practicing for such an attack. His belief that there is too much emphasis placed on a catastrophic EMP event may be well-meant, but is misguided.

Consider a parallel kind of event — an asteroid or comet impact on the Earth. We know for a fact that large impacts have happened, and there's strong evidence that they've changed the course of all life on the planet. Even though large, dangerous strikes appear to happen very infrequently, that doesn't mean we sit idly by. Rather, we watch the skies and monitor for possible threats. Why? Because the threat is large enough to impact all of mankind. It only takes one significant impact to change things forever.

The same is true for the threat of a widespread EMP event. The threat may seem unlikely, but again, it only takes one significant event to change things forever.

Hopefully, we'll never find out what toll an EMP attack really takes on modern civilization. Still, we can't sit idly by an ignore the threat... not when the potential impact is so great.

But it's not about being afraid — it's about being ready so that you aren't afraid.

We all need to do our part. It starts with personal self-reliance and family preparedness. After that, we need to work with our neighbors and within our communities to prepare on a local level. Along the way, we must advocate for preparedness and self-reliance on a regional scale. We cannot rely on government (especially the federal government) to save us.

History has repeatedly shown that it's people's preparedness or neighbor helping neighbor that really makes the difference in a disaster.

Given that, what will you do today to increase your preparedness and self-reliance?

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