US Congress hears about telecommunications threat

Forget the Y2K problem. A congressional committee is looking into the ability of emerging nuclear states, such as North Korea, to hold the US hostage by threatening to unleash an electromagnetic pulse (EMP).

One nuclear explosion, high in the atmosphere, could produce enough EMP power to blanket the US, potentially crippling electronic equipment. EMP is akin to static electricity but extremely intense and exceedingly brief, the US House Armed Services Subcommittee was told by a panel of experts at a hearing last week. Most at risk for EMP damage are large electronic systems that comprise telecommunications lines, cable and dish antennae.

The military is worried about the impact of EMP on commercial off-the-shelf communications equipment, which isn't typically produced to withstand the effects of explosion. Robust hardening against EMP effects adds 3 per cent to 10 per cent to the total system lifecycle cost, said Dr Lowell Wood, a nuclear weapons expert.

Defence experts, however, can't say for certain just how much damage EMP will cause. "We know it will impact electronic equipment, but due to the variation of tolerances built into commercial equipment and the different system configurations, we can't accurately predict how widespread any damage or disruption will be," said Stanley J Jakubiak, deputy chief of the Command Center's Division, Joint Chiefs of Staff, according to his testimony.

The most famous EMP incident occurred July 9, 1962, when a nuclear test explosion above Johnston Island in the Pacific was responsible for the failure of about 1 per cent of the streetlights in Oahu, Hawaii, about 800 miles away.

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