Belmont Club

The twenty first century

The WSJ describes What a Single Nuclear Warhead could do and seemingly makes the case for some sort of missle defense simply because — let’s invoke the Precautionary Principle here because after all once introduced into the argument it should cut both ways  — it’s just too dangerous not to have one. “Seemingly” because it is really making an argument for a whole new attitude towards the threat of WMD attacks in the West. It’s just irrational to keep believing that “it can’t happen here”.

Although President George W. Bush has accomplished more in the way of missile defense than his predecessors — including Ronald Reagan — he will leave office with only a rudimentary system designed to stop a handful of North Korean missiles launched at our West Coast. Barack Obama will become commander in chief of a country essentially undefended against Russian, Chinese, Iranian or ship-launched terrorist missiles. This is not acceptable. …

Think about this scenario: An ordinary-looking freighter ship heading toward New York or Los Angeles launches a missile from its hull or from a canister lowered into the sea. It hits a densely populated area. A million people are incinerated. The ship is then sunk. No one claims responsibility. There is no firm evidence as to who sponsored the attack, and thus no one against whom to launch a counterstrike.

But as terrible as that scenario sounds, there is one that is worse. Let us say the freighter ship launches a nuclear-armed Shahab-3 missile off the coast of the U.S. and the missile explodes 300 miles over Chicago. The nuclear detonation in space creates an electromagnetic pulse (EMP).

Gamma rays from the explosion, through the Compton Effect, generate three classes of disruptive electromagnetic pulses, which permanently destroy consumer electronics, the electronics in some automobiles and, most importantly, the hundreds of large transformers that distribute power throughout the U.S. All of our lights, refrigerators, water-pumping stations, TVs and radios stop running. We have no communication and no ability to provide food and water to 300 million Americans.

The twenty first century will present extraordinary opportunities but also throw up unprecedented dangers. It will be interesting to watch how bureaucrats forged during the Clinton and Bush years, now slated to head the Washington establishments, can cope.

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