The global financial system’s ever-increasing leverage pretty much guarantees another crisis in coming years — unless it’s pre-empted by new weapons that can, in theory, shut down entire national banking systems, thus screwing up the best-laid plans of today’s savers and investors.
This series will consider some of them, beginning with the electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack. From today’s Wall Street Journal:
North Korea Dreams of Turning Out the LightsPyongyang doesn’t need a perfect missile. Detonating a nuke above Seoul—or L.A.—would sow chaos.
In 2001 Congress established a commission to study the danger of an electromagnetic pulse generated by the detonation of a high-altitude nuclear weapon. It concluded that while there would be no blast effects on the ground, critical electricity-dependent infrastructure could be rendered inoperable. The commission’s chairman, William R. Graham, has noted that several Russian generals told the commissioners in 2004 that the designs for a “super EMP nuclear weapon” had been transferred to North Korea.
Pyongyang, the Russian generals reported, was probably only a few years away from developing super EMP capability. According to Peter Vincent Pry, staff director of the congressional EMP commission, a recent North Korean medium-range missile test that was widely reported to have exploded midflight could in fact have been deliberately detonated at an altitude of 40 miles.
Was it a dry run for an EMP attack? Detonation at that altitude of a nuclear warhead with a yield of 10 to 20 kilotons—similar to those tested by North Korea—would produce major EMP effects and inflict catastrophic damage to unhardened electronics across hundreds of miles of surface territory. It is a myth that large yield nuclear weapons of hundreds of kilotons are required to produce such effects.
Although some analysts have dismissed the possibility of a successful North Korean EMP attack—either on South Korea or the United States—several factors could make it a more appealing first-strike strategy for Kim Jong Un’s nuclear scientists than a direct, missile-delivered nuclear strike. For one thing, accuracy is not a concern; the North Koreans simply need to get near their target to sow chaos. Nor would they need to worry about developing a reliable re-entry vehicle for their ballistic missiles.
Conventional wisdom aside, a North Korean EMP attack on the U.S. may also not be far-fetched. “North Korea could make an EMP attack against the United States by launching a short-range missile off a freighter or submarine or by lofting a warhead to 30 kilometers burst height by balloon,” wrote Mr. Graham earlier this month on the security blog 38 North. “Even a balloon-lofted warhead detonated at 30 kilometers altitude could blackout the Eastern Grid that supports most of the population and generates 75 percent of US electricity. Moreover, an EMP attack could be made by a North Korean satellite.” Two North Korean satellites currently orbit the earth on trajectories that take them over the U.S.
This is not mere theory. In 1962 the United States detonated a 1.4-megaton nuclear warhead over the South Pacific, 900 miles southwest of Hawaii. Designated “Starfish Prime,” the blast destroyed hundreds of street lights in Honolulu, caused electrical surges on airplanes in the area, and damaged at least six satellites. Only Hawaii’s undeveloped electric power-transmission infrastructure prevented a prolonged blackout. It was the era of vacuum-tube electronics. We are living in the digital age.
• Lots of actors in addition to North Korea have this capability. And we can’t stop it. Preventing a nuke-laden plane or balloon from detonating miles above a populated area is hard to the point of impossibility.
• Banking and brokerage networks would be shut down – possibly for a long while – by such an attack, which means no access to ATM machines or credit card readers. People without ready cash would be stuck without access to life’s necessities. Meanwhile cars, which have in recent years become rolling computer networks, won’t run, making it hard to get to distant supplies.
• The fiat currency of a system shut down in this way might or might not hold its value. This is uncharted financial territory so it’s not certain that cash under the mattress will be of use. And forget about cryptocurrencies in this scenario. Virtual money evaporates when the network on which it circulates goes down.
• The solution? Start upgrading to hardened electronics as part of a basic prepping program. That’s beyond the technical scope of this article, but Google it and you’ll find plenty of resources. And hold precious metals in small enough denominations to use as currency. One of history’s lessons is that gold and silver remain valuable whatever else is going on. If we’re destined to spend a few months back in the Middle Ages, spendable money will make the experience a lot more manageable.