Free Liberal

Coordinating towards higher values

The Threat of an Electromagnetic Bomb

The only defense is mutual tolerance

by Fred E. Foldvary

The current economic crash is a disaster, but we can recover from it. Maybe we can feel better, or maybe even worse, if we contemplate catastrophes which thankfully have not occurred. A possible future danger is a nuclear bomb hurled from a ship that comes close to shore. Another danger is a nuclear bomb that is exploded in the atmosphere, which then destroys exposed electronic equipment below. An e-bomb would generate gamma rays, which then produce free electrons that interact with the earth’s magnetic field, creating an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) that would wipe out computers and other electronics.

The EMP effect is not just hypothetical, but has been observed when testing nuclear blasts at high altitudes. The burst creates an electromagnetic shock wave. Like a huge lightning attack, the field creates a high voltage that can wipe out electrical conductors such as wires and circuit boards, resulting in irreversible damage. Even if some machines still function, they would become unreliable. With computers, televisions, and communications destroyed, the effect on the economy would be many times worse than the credit constraints of an economic depression.

The financial infrastructure of economies today depend on electronic storage and transmission of data. When money was metals and paper, war could not destroy the financial base. Now money and assets are recorded as bits in a computer. These financial bits need to be frequently backed up in media that would not be vulnerable to an EMP. But even when backed up, if the computers no longer function, the data would just sit there unusable. With telephones and the Internet no longer functioning, there would be mass confusion and panic.

Another danger is electronic bombs that generate high-power microwave (HPM) signals that would destroy computers. An HPM could be hidden in a van. It would only have a range of a few hundred meters, but the weapon would be silent and would destroy vital equipment in the targeted area. It has been reported that such devices have been made in Russia.

It may not be possible to protect our vital electronic infrastructure from EMP and HPM. The best defense is prevention. The world’s chiefs should seek to reduce the motivation by terrorists to use such weapons.

The new administration has indicated that it is willing to talk to its adversaries. I don’t see how it hurts to meet and talk with enemies. Diplomacy got a bad image when the Nazis were appeased before World War II. The bad thing was not the discussions but the appeasement. The British and French should not have allowed Nazi Germany to expand its territory.

Terrorists act when they have a perceived grievance. There is no moral reason or excuse for terrorism, not even when there are legitimate grievances. But regardless of any terrorist threat, it is just and right to resolve the issues that motivate enemies.

The core of the political tensions today is the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs. For some mysterious reason, the obvious solution is not being discussed, namely, a confederation in which the Israeli settlers would pay rent in exchange for remaining in the West Bank.

The main danger of electromagnetic bombs comes from Iran. The Iranians have a legitimate grievance against the US for its overthrowing the elected government of Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953. There is really no good reason why the US and Iran should be enemies today. There are three possibilities regarding the feasibility of resolving the threat from Iran.


First, it is possible that the chiefs of Iran are crazy. If they are insane, then negotiations are useless. But they don’t act as though they were insane.
Second, they could be seeking mass martyrdom. They could be willing to commit national suicide in order to destroy the US and Israel. The Iranian people do not seek this, but their chiefs might. If they seek mutual destruction, then the best strategy for the US and its allies is the overthrow of the regime, this time for a legitimate reason.

The third possibility is that the Iranian regime seeks to be a major, respected, influential power. In that case, the chiefs would be seeking survival, and negotiations to remove the threat of mutual destruction would be productive.

Likewise, the US government should negotiate with the Taliban in Afghanistan. The US should at least determine if they are crazy or seek mutual destruction. The US should avoid appeasement, but there could be misunderstandings that can be resolved. If the Taliban seeks to host terrorists that target the US, an effective antidote is to remove their economic base by buying out the farmers that grow opium, and to remove the political dissatisfaction by implementing decentralized democracy.

The modern world is dependent on electronic technology that is vulnerable to destruction. Peace is now not just a moral imperative, but necessary for survival. Individuals can make themselves less vulnerable by storing some food and water and other necessities. People have a naive faith that government can protect us and help us when disaster strikes, but government may also be incapacitated.

These threats to civilization are getting little discussion. We need to know what the government chiefs are doing about the threat of an electromagnetic bomb.

This article first appeared in the Progress Report, www.progress.org. Reprinted with permission.

Dr. Fred Foldvary teaches economics at Santa Clara University and is the author of several books: The Soul of Liberty, Public Goods and Private Communities, and the Dictionary of Free-Market Economics.