Could the Ukraine war devolve into an EMP apocalypse for America?

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s troops may conquer Ukraine by capturing its major cities, but there is a big difference between conquering a place and cowing and controlling its people. The Ukrainians are fighting back valiantly. 

History demonstrates that military occupation is expensive, labor-intensive and difficult. Consider, for example, Afghanistan and Iraq in the 20th century, and colonial America in the late 1700s. This is unquestionably true when neighboring countries provide arms, ammunition and other help to restive and rebelling citizens of the country that is invaded.

Within Russia, Putin likely will face questions from his supporters, growing criticism from demonetized oligarchs, and more demonstrations in the streets by the Russian “middle class” increasingly impoverished by international sanctions. Putin, therefore, must make additional aggressive moves rapidly, to avoid retreating into ignominy and failure.

It is possible that he will move against a smaller nearby country, with Belarus as an ally. Former countries of the USSR that are now NATO members, such as Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, might be choice candidates for a Russian invasion. Each is small, with little or no air force, with large Russian-speaking populations and long Baltic Sea coastlines.

Control of just Lithuania, for example, would provide a land corridor with Belarus to the now isolated Russian state of Kaliningrad. Putin could claim that as a “real win.”

Such a move, however, would invoke Article 5 of the NATO charter, requiring NATO nations to fight against the aggressor of a member state. And the response by NATO members to Putin’s current aggression — albeit against a non-NATO member — has been timorous and tempered at best. 

Over the past two decades, the once strong German Armed Forces have been reduced to marginal existence. Those of other countries, apart from Poland and Hungary, are minimal at best. The Dutch army even has a labor union. France relies on posturing and its nuclear deterrent. The armies of Spain, Italy and Greece, except for their air forces, possibly, are marginal players. That means the backbone of NATO is the United States.

In past wars, the United States has remained untouched physically from kinetic war on its landmass. It was the “Arsenal of Democracy” in World War II. And to paraphrase the thinking of the People’s Republic of China about the South China Sea, the United States is the largest immobile semi-self-sufficient aircraft carrier in the world. It is too big to sink.

But it is not too big to paralyze. Cyber attacks and their effects are not enough; they can be planned for, limited and contained. However, a missile-delivered electromagnetic pulse (EMP) of sufficient size, exploded high above St. Louis, for example, could basically fry the electricity systems of the United States and those of the main populated parts of Canada and northern Mexico. The resulting social catastrophe of such a doomsday scenario would forcibly preoccupy national, state and local authorities with their own internal problems. 

Imagine most of the United States with no electricity, no ATMs, few working vehicles, few functioning hospitals, no delivery of prescription medicines, or food or fresh water or sewage treatment. Most of the U.S. population could be reduced to a lifestyle like that of the 1800s. EMP Commission estimates project a death toll of 90 percent of the population within one year, were something of this nature to happen. Remaining authorities would be overwhelmed by civil unrest decimating the dwindling population as they fought for their survival.

The question, then, is: “Would such an EMP attack provoke a nuclear response by the United States?” The answer to that likely depends on from where the U.S. believed the EMP originated. 

If North Korean’s leader Kim Jong Un could be persuaded to fire an EMP missile over the United States, or to detonate a preloaded bomb on either one of the two North Korean satellites it claims to have circling Earth, both China and Russia could claim plausible deniability. The United States would be left with the option of attacking North Korea or broadening the war on the presumption that Kim was enticed to fire the EMP by either Russia or China, since both superpowers could benefit geopolitically.

But even if North Korea did not initiate the EMP, and it was clear from missile tracks that Russia did, the American response likely would be based on 30-year-old nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) targeted toward Russia. U.S. missiles would be met with batteries of highly capable Russian anti-missile S300s, S400s and S500s.

Russia recently demonstrated that its S550 anti-satellite missiles can destroy American military satellites, which would then degrade U.S. command-control-communications and GPS coordination of the targeting mechanisms in U.S. missiles. Consequently, U.S. missiles might be rerouted — who knows where — or more easily destroyed by Russia’s anti-missile defenses. 

Of course, if the United States were to launch ICBMs against Russia, unquestionably Moscow would respond in kind. If they did, an already EMP-devastated U.S. could be utterly destroyed.

This would leave China and Russia as the sole remaining superpowers, able to dominate the world. Inevitably, these “empires of evil” would clash with each other for global dominance. And what would India and Pakistan do, or Iran and Israel, in the aftermath of a shattered world order, bereft of the benign United States as global policeman?

This unthinkable scenario is why we believe the future of mankind could be at stake in Russia’s war in Ukraine, if the worst-case possibilities were to unfold.

D. Brian Hay is president of the Mackenzie Institute, a Canadian think tank on security matters. Peter Vincent Pry, Ph.D., is executive director of America’s EMP Task Force on National and Homeland Security.

Tags Anti-satellite weapon Ballistic missile Electromagnetic pulse Kim Jong Un Russian invasion of Ukraine Vladimir Putin

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