National Security: The Sept. 11 commission stated that our biggest failure was one of imagination. Imagine an Iranian nuclear device detonating high over the American heartland. They're working on it.
On the same day the 9/11 Commission issued its report, another commission issued a report on a threat that could change our world and way of life in ways we can scarcely imagine. It is a real and credible threat, and it is largely being ignored.
The threat is a phenomenon known as electromagnetic pulse, or EMP, and demonstrates why the issue of homeland security extends beyond the need for body scanners or taking our shoes off at the airport. It's why ignoring Iran is dangerous and why a robust national missile defense should be of the highest priority.
This threat to our national security was the subject of study by the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse Attack, established by unanimous consent of the House and Senate. Released on the same day as the 9/11 Commission report, few paid attention.
It is a scenario worthy of Hollywood, but it is a frighteningly real possibility. A solitary ballistic missile, perhaps an ICBM launched by a decaying North Korean regime or an Iranian mullah, or a terrorist Scud launched from a ship off the Atlantic Coast carrying the first Islamic nuke, detonates its warhead 25 to 300 miles above the U.S. mainland.
Nobody is harmed or killed immediately by the blast. But life in America, the world's only superpower and largest economy, comes to a screeching halt as a country dependent on 21st-century technology regresses almost a century instantaneously.
The radiation from such a high-altitude nuclear blast would interact with air molecules to produce high-energy electrons that would race along the earth's magnetic field in a pulse strong enough to disrupt power grids, electronic systems and communications.
And that's just for starters.
Millions could die as hospital systems shut down and rail and air traffic control systems collapse. Farmers wouldn't be able to harvest crops and distributors couldn't get goods to market.
Energy production would cease. Computers and PCs would become large paperweights. Telephones, even cellphones, wouldn't work. Electronic records would be inaccessible, if they survived.
As Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., notes: "A terrorist organization might have trouble putting a nuclear warhead on target with a Scud, but it would be much easier to simply launch and detonate in the atmosphere. . .. Just launch a cheap missile from a freighter in international waters — al-Qaida is believed to own about 80 such vessels — and make sure to get it a few miles in the air."
Iran has long practiced launching Scuds from ships in the Caspian Sea and detonating them in midflight. It has also tested high-altitude explosions of its Shahab-3 ballistic missile, a test consistent with an EMP attack.
The warhead need not be of a staggeringly high yield; the missile need not have an intercontinental range. The plan only awaits a working nuke, something Tehran gets closer to every day.
Iran's Shahab-3 is a midrange mobile missile and small enough to be transported in the hold of a freighter. A nuclear missile so concealed would give Iran, or terrorists, the ability to launch a devastating attack on America without warning.
We need to think outside the silo and consider scenarios other than standard launches from an enemy's homeland. To protect against ballistic missile threats, including an EMP attack, we need a multilayered missile defense system capable of shooting down missiles in all phases of flight, especially the boost or ascent phase.
Unthinkable? Far-fetched? So was Sept. 11 — the idea that planes could be hijacked and turned into deadly manned cruise missiles.