The Blackout Bomb: What It Means To You

by John Lewallen,

If it happens tomorrow, you will be one of the few Americans who know that a nuclear explosion over the Midwest has melted most of the integrated circuits nationwide. A megaton-class thermonuclear explosion about 250 miles over Omaha, Nebraska, would emit an Electromagnetic Pulse large and strong enough to collapse information society from coast to coast, at the speed of light. You wouldn't feel anything. It would come and go in less than a second, a massive radio wave, everywhere at once. Picked up by copper wires and carried to the extremely vulnerable integrated circuits at switching centers, the Blackout Bomb would guarantee that there will be no official announcement of what has happened. This is the Blackout Bomb, the bomb the government doesn't want to talk about. In 1997 Congress held what was apparently its first public hearing on high-altitude Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP), a topic that had "riveted the attention of the military nuclear tactical community for three-and-a-half decades since the first comparatively modest one very unexpectedly turned off the lights over a few million square miles in the mid-Pacific," according to the testimony of Dr. Lowell Wood. s197010_1.htm

"The entire topic of EMP was highly classified," said Dr. Wood, a Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory scientist who has "worked for the past three decades in both the offensive and defensive aspects of EMP." The Blackout Bomb is simply a high-yield nuclear weapon, or a smaller nuclear weapon designed to maximize gamma-ray emissions. The EMP laydown of a thermonuclear burst moves at the speed of light, striking the Earth to the horizon at line-of-sight from the detonation. Gamma rays actually radiate spherically from the blast point, creating space EMP that, Dr. Wood added in written hearing testimony, would damage satellite electronics even at great distances from the explosion. 70716w.htm

"The basic point," said Dr. Lowell Wood, "is that essentially all of our conventional military capability and all of our civilian infrastructure is highly vulnerable to EMP damage. The dollar numbers in the civilian infrastructure alone can be conservatively estimated at several trillion dollars' worth of infrastructure which is at risk potentially even from a single pulse--several trillion dollars." Dr. Wood testified that our civilization's vulnerability to EMP had increased "exponentially" since the 1962 Johnston Island test, which blacked out power grids and shut down autos in Hawaii, a thousand miles away from the burst. Microchips with integrated circuits are much more vulnerable to EMP than were the vacuum tubes used in the sixties. And, Dr. Wood testified, the smaller the integrated circuits get, the more vulnerable they are to EMP. Dr. Wood and other hearing participants recommended a national assessment of EMP vulnerability, military and civilian. But that would mean the government would have to talk about EMP, so the idea has gone nowhere. "Most modern computer systems ranging from laptops to mainframes would wilt. By wilting, they would at least cease to function," said Dr. Wood. He testified that the electrical controls of commercial aircraft would be shut down, but noted that most commercial aircraft are hard-wired to be landed manually. It is probably clear," said Dr. Wood, "that if this attack occurred at night most of the planes, most of the civilian airlines in the air, would be lost for obvious reasons. They simply won't be able to land. They won't have landing aids..."Weldon Committee EMP hearing, 1997 any future global war is likely to begin with a few Blackout Bombs. China, Russia, the United States, and other nuclear powers have several nuclear missiles, and perhaps weaponized satellites, designed to lay down EMP over continent-size areas instantaneously. What does the Blackout Bomb mean to you? While every nation on Earth is vulnerable to attack from the United States, the United States is vulnerable, indeed defenseless, to a secret class of nuclear weapons, which, in the words of Dr. Lowell Wood, have riveted the attention of the major nuclear powers--China, Russia, Britain, France, and the United States itself--for the past thirty-eight years. The Blackout Bomb means that we are vulnerable to complete information civilization shutdown, and there is nothing we can do about that in a military defensive sense. Only Peace Strategy, strategy focused on achieving peace, rather than winning war, will head off a global confrontation beginning, and hopefully ending, with a lot of high-altitude Electromagnetic Pulse laydown. The Blackout Bomb means, according to Dr. Wood's written testimony at the 1997 EMP hearing in Congress that our information civilization is subject to anonymous attack:

"What would the U.S. response be to a nuclear EMP 'bolt from the blue'--or even one from a geopolitically overcast sky? What if such an attack, e.g., executed with a single rather modest Earth-orbiting bomb, arguably could have been mounted not only by Russia, but also by China or India or Iran--or North Korea? Particularly if none of our fellow citizens died as a direct-and-immediate result of such an attack, what degree of certitude of attack attribution would we require of ourselves before an American President would order a retaliatory strike imposing condign punishment on the suspect nation? Paralyzed as a modern nation, thrown back decades in time in industrial capabilities but still retaining a reasonably full set of nuclear teeth in our national mouth, how would we Americans then choose whom to bite--if anyone? The intriguing allusion in Dr. Wood's testimony to a rather modest Earth-orbiting bomb is a rare, but revealing, glimpse at the shadowy world of satellite weaponry, which supposedly does not exist. When I was a child, the United States Government never questioned its responsibility to educate the American people about the true effects of nuclear weapons in the hands of our potential enemies. Education about the blast, thermal, and radiation effects of nuclear weapons was considered a fundamental part of the government's duty to provide for the common defense and to promote the general welfare. Nobody imagined a day would come when the nation had grown totally vulnerable to information civilization collapse from weapons deployed by potential enemies, and the United States Government would not actively warn the nation of the true nature of this peril. Dr. Lowell Wood noted that hardening systems to withstand EMP is a small part of cost, if done as part of the initial design. Yet no civilian and few military systems have been hardened to resist EMP. As a Peace Strategist, I recommend spreading word about high-altitude electromagnetic pulse weaponry as fast and wide as possible. We have a duty to educate and warn people. A national assessment of EMP vulnerability is, I believe, a good idea. However, I respectfully disagree with Dr. Wood's recommendation that any civilian hardening to protect us from EMP be done. After a flirtation with civil defense and bomb shelters, Americans have realized that nuclear attack against the United States is not something they are willing to prepare for, because there is no rational way to prepare for it. I believe Russia, China, and the United States form a Nuclear Triangle with constant low-to high-key nuclear weapons confrontation in the air. If we start hardening our civilian infrastructure to withstand EMP, it will signal to the Russians and Chinese that we are moving toward the brink of nuclear war.

Some Strategic Implications of the Blackout Bomb

Accept for a moment that I am correct: the greatest danger of nuclear attack on the United States today is from Russia or China. The United States, Russia, and China are the Nuclear Triangle: in a constant state of nuclear weapons confrontation, hot or cold, always taking steps either away from the brink of nuclear war, or toward it. All three nations are poised to strike suddenly with high-altitude nuclear explosions over the others' territory, collapsing all the vulnerable electrical systems below, and destroying unprotected satellite electrical systems in line of sight of the blast. In addition to intercontinental ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads in the megaton class, which China is known to have in the tens, and Russia and the United States in the thousands, for some thirty-seven years, according to Dr. Lowell Wood's testimony, all major nuclear powers have been developing a top-secret class of EMP nuclear weaponry. The secret EMP nuclear weapon of choice may be an orbiting thermonuclear bomb in a maneuverable satellite, miniaturized to maximize gamma ray emission, perhaps disguised as a telecommunications satellite. Note Dr. Wood's allusion above to an Earth-orbiting bomb Neither Russia, China, nor the United States have defense to prevent this. Russia and China are far less dependent on computers than is the United States. On this field of battle, high-altitude electromagnetic pulse warfare driven by nuclear explosions, the United States is the most vulnerable nation of the three contestants, simply because it is the most dependent on integrated circuits. Dr. Wood testified that the United States and Russia took different approaches to EMP warfare from the outset: The Soviets, he wrote, basically decided that EMP represented not only an exceptionally severe threat to the integrity of their military apparatus and their civilian infrastructure, but also offered extraordinary opportunities to their strategic offensive forces. Dr.Lowell Wood, Written EMP Congressional Testimony, 1997 The Russians now, according to Dr. Wood, have inherited more than a dozen Soviet SS-18 ICBM*s which carried large unitary warheads in the 10 megaton class that were believed to have the primary function and military role of conducting an extremely severe military laydown...That EMP strike component exists today in the Russian strategic order-of-battle, moreover at its maximum Cold War strength. I very confidently predict that it will be one of the last features of Soviet strategic nuclear weaponry to be retired from the Russian force structure. Weldon Committee EMP Hearing, 1997 Dr. Wood testified that the Russians have done much more EMP hardening and military/civilian preparedness training than has the United States. We Americans, Dr. Wood wrote, in contrast, collectively saw EMP as a major nuisance, which could be rather precisely understood, defended against 'good enough'--and thereafter largely ignored. Dr. Wood testified that satellites are especially vulnerable to the x-rays and gamma rays from a high-altitude nuclear explosion, which is different from atmospheric EMP but radiated spherically around the explosion. He added that no United States satellites could be considered reliably protected from space EMP, because EMP testing of protective systems is erratic. Chinese weapons strategists must have been ecstatic when they realized that even the possibility that they might be able to place one Blackout Bomb over the American Midwest would threaten their archenemy with devastation as a modern, post-industrial nation. Now, watching the United States rush into a field of battle--information and space weaponry--where it has a distinct strategic disadvantage--being the adversary most dependent on integrated circuits, a democracy with a population blissfully unaware of the Blackout Bomb--Chinese war strategists are focused on dominating information warfare. Major Mark A. Stokes of the U.S. Army War College wrote in his book-length report, "China's Strategic Modernization: Implications for the United States" (September, 1999, p.26): Enthusiasm reached a crescendo when China's leading authorities on strategy and warfare convened in Shijiazhuang for a 'Forum for Experts on Meeting the Challenges of the World Military Revolution' in December 1995....The more than 30 high-ranking experts attending the conference called for the development of weapons which can 'throw the financial systems and army command systems into chaos.* These types of weapons are useful for underdeveloped countries to use against a nation which is extremely fragile and vulnerable when it fulfills the process of networking and then relies entirely on electronic computers.* China must abandon the strategy of catching up* with more advanced powers and proceed from the brand new information warfare and develop our unique technologies and skills, rather than inlay the old framework with new technologies.* Some observers believe by adopting information-based approaches to warfare, China can effectively leapfrog into the 21st century as a preeminent military power." mod.htm

Major Stokes did not connect this statement to high-altitude EMP nuclear weaponry. In fact, his study of China*s real and imagined electronic weaponry has only cursory mention of EMP. Is the Blackout Bomb so secret and potentially panic-causing that even many military strategists are in the dark about its true significance? Dr. Lowell Wood noted in verbal testimony at the 1997 EMP hearing in Congress that nuclear strategists in the United States do war simulations based on the presumption that a capable enemy would begin hostilities with high-altitude EMP weaponry. Since the Russians and Chinese know that we are ready to lay heavy EMP on them at the outset of hostilities, they try to be prepared to do the same to us, preferably first. Therefore, if we careen closer to nuclear conflict with Russia or China, the advantage of first-strike EMP escalates rapidly. The main reason why the Blackout Bomb probably never will be used against the United States is global interdependence: Russia, China, indeed the whole world would be set back massively by collapse of information civilization in the United States. The United States nuclear and non-nuclear forces, which can rain annihilation anywhere on Earth, some elements of which might survive massive EMP laydown, are a deterrent to attack on the U.S. with Blackout Bombs or any other weapons. Today, as we contemplate Russia*s escalating nuclear confrontation with the United States, and deal with the United States government*s push to deploy a system, the Blackout Bombs in the hands of the Russians and Chinese, and perhaps other nuclear powers, are a wild card. If and when our nuclear-armed adversaries decide military conflict with the U.S. is imminent, probably our information civilization will turn off like a light unplugged, and we, you and I, will be where we are at the time, looking at one another in amazed incomprehension. You will know what has happened. But how many others will?


*Information for this article came from Threat Posed by Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) To U.S. Military Systems and Civil Infrastructure, testimony before the Military Research and Development Subcommittee, Committee on National Security, U.S. House of Representatives, July 16, 1997, available on the Web at the Federation of American Scientists website 70716u.htm

*The real bombshell is the written testimony of Dr. Lowell Wood, EMP weapons scientist of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, at the above-mentioned hearing, written with a good ear for the catchy phrase and sound byte: 70716w.htm

*For a Chinese opera of real and possible electronic weapons and strategy, see Mark A. Stokes, Major, China*s Strategic Modernization: Implications for the United States (U.S. Army War College, 1999). mod.htm

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