The Problem With Being Goliath

All the usual caveats apply:  it’s Breitbart.  Yadda yadda.

But this piece here jogged my thinking about something that’s been on my mind lately.

Kim Jong Un’s hold on power pretty much depends on keeping his nation convinced that he can defeat the United States in an open conflict.

Now the Norks have been plugging gamely away trying to build nukes, and the ICBMs to launch them with.

Do they ever have any hope of matching the US’s immense (if ageing) nuclear arsenal?  No, not a realistic one.

For that matter, could they even beat the Republic of Korea in a conventional war, much less the US?  No – the South’s army is huge, well-equipped, and highly motivated.

And yet Kim blusters away.  And naturally some of that is going to be the inevitable blustering of tyrants to their enslaved people.

But what if he believes he can not only bring down the US, but do it fairly decisively…

…and on the relative cheap?

Turns out there’s a solid chance he could do exactly that.  While Hiroshima-sized nuclear device can devastate an area a few miles across if it blows up 2,000 feet in the air, and spread radioactive dust hundreds of miles downwind if it blows up at ground level, if it explodes 50-60 miles in the air it will cause no direct damage on the ground – but it’ll fry every unprotected electronic circuit within hundreds of miles.

During the Cold War, some experts calculated that a half dozen nukes detonated in the trophosphere could fry nearly every non-hardenedelectronic circuit in the United States and most of Canada and Mexico.

Every non-hardened computer – and the switches, routers and other electronic hardware that the Internet runs on.  Every cell phone – and the switches and routers and modulators and demodulators at every cell tower and service center.  Every electonic ignition system and engine control computer in every vehicle that had one – which is pretty much every one built after about the mid-eighties.  Every bit of avionics – radar, GPS, transponders, altimeters, and, in the new “glass cockpits”, the flight instruments and the processors that link them to the controls in every airplane in the sky and on the ground, and in the air traffic control centers that route the air traffic.  The computers that monitor where all the money is, and who has it, and who’s getting it.   The processors that make many of our healthcare miracles possible.

And the electronic infrastructure that controls the “supply chain” that grows our food, harvests is, processes it and ships it to wherever you live, assuming you yourself are not a farmer.

Anyway – while the Norks’ nuke tests are being played as comedy fodder in the American media…:

“The April 29 missile launch looks suspiciously like practice for an EMP attack,” [Dr. Peter Vincent Pry, executive director of the Task Force on National and Homeland Security and= chief of staff of the Congressional EMP Commission] wrote. “The missile was fired on a lofted trajectory, to maximize, not range, but climbing to high-altitude as quickly as possible, where it was successfully fused and detonated — testing everything but an actual nuclear warhead.”

Western “experts” quoted by the likes of NPR scoff that the Norks’ missile technology would have a hard time reliably hitting a city-size target.

But that’s the thing with EMP – you don’t have to hit even a city-sized target.  You have to hit the trophshere, somewhere above a region of the country – and if you manage to do it half a dozen times – say, over upstate New York, near DC, over southern Georgia, Iowa, Bakersfield and Oklahoma City – you wreck the vast majority of America’s electronic infrastructure.  Banks?  The power grid?  The poiwer grid?  The internet – outside the bounds of the original ARPANet, at least?  All cell networks and land-line networks?  All major media?  A good chunk of the military, for that matter?  The control of the entire food supply chain?   Every non-carbureted vehicle in the US?   All shut down.

There are alarmist claims that an EMP attack could kill 100 million Americans.  I doubt those claims; humans are a lot more resilient than that.  But it’d be a huge hit – it’d send most of this country back a century.

Anyway – such are the things that keep me up nights.

Perhaps a more rational – or at least constrained – assessment here.

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33 thoughts on “The Problem With Being Goliath

  1. As if anyone needed more incentive to move from coasts to the interior.

  2. It strikes me that since electromagnetic field strength in the far field goes as 1/R^2, North Korean missiles would still need to get within a certain range. No? So unless they’d be happy knocking out their own communications networks, they’ve got to achieve real range.

    Regarding the lofting, they either are idiots, or they are trying to keep the rocket within radio range to monitor its performance. A standard ICBM is said to achieve a maximum altitude of about 1200km, entirely sufficient for EMP if they want to do that. Lofting simply reduces range and (with sufficient fuel) makes it possible that the warhead won’t return to Earth at all.

    One final note; if indeed someone, not necessarily the Norks, manages this sort of thing, a hearty thank you to the government for all of the efficiency mandates that put susceptible electronics in key places.

  3. How about we take, say, the next four years of Solyndra-style “research” funding no devote it to hardening and decentralizing key electronic controls?

  4. NW: the sad thing is that we know how to harden electronics. The military has been doing it for half a century, and the key components are called “grounding” and “shielding.” You can do some other things in silicon/other technology that help as well, but the basics are really straightforward and have been known for decades.

  5. Ok, have a question for engineers here – since most if not all deranged libturds are now sporting tin and lead foil hats, will that help or hurt them during an EMP attack? I know aluminium helps, but they seem to insist on tin and lead. An if helps, I wonder if they are in cahoots with Kim Junk Ill.

  6. JPA: both and more. Lead stops high energy radioactive particles (so does concrete to a degree), and aluminium (love the sp., BTW) and copper reflect radio frequencies and such.

    Much easier to design in than to retrofit (ounce of prevention….), so it could get ugly.

  7. I know people that have built Faraday cages in their basements and/or have turned their garages into one. Some of them even have microwave ovens on every floor. They can act as a mini Faraday cage for cell phones, radios, laptops, etc. for all of the good that will do them if the grid gets fried.

  8. Lead – duh! Of course! There is market there for aluminium (you know which continent a person was educated by how the spell Al) foil retro wraps for car brains. I need to get me a 50’s pickup truck with a carb and no electronics. I am afraid all my cars will be toast in an EMP attack. Although, one has an aluminium body. Hmmm…Need to buy more stock in Al production. Oh, wait, Russia owns most Al in the world. Double Hmmm…

  9. Fox had a serious guy on that said they HAVE to open with nukes if they are going to save Seoul very much from NK artillery.

    —-

    My understanding is a lot of the stuff we have to get to harden the grid isn’t that expensive, but it takes a while to manufacture.

  10. for all of the good that will do them if the grid gets fried.

    I know, it’s like all those solar powered chargers for phones and other electronics. If the grid is down, there will be no signals. Snowflake generation does not comprende. They never lived in a world without the intraweb. To them it is omnipresent and indesctructible.

  11. My understanding is a lot of the stuff we have to get to harden the grid isn’t that expensive, but it takes a while to manufacture.

    No, it takes political will and an ability to realize that we live in a hostile world and that no measure of kumbaya will stop fanatics – religious and otherwise – bent on destruction.

  12. jpa,

    If nothing else, it will fun watching all of the morons that are addicted to their electronics, have a collective meltdown.

    Thankfully, I still have a distributor for my 1968 Mustang. I can swap out the electronic stuff that’s on it now and go old school!

  13. There’s really no practical way to harden the electric grid, honestly. Think of all those long, high voltage transmission wires as antennae and you’ll recognize the shear size of the voltage they can develop. 10+ MV spikes near the explosion as compared to the far end will cook anything connected to the line. Even back in the olden days when things weren’t designed to the edge the initial discovery of EMP took out the Hawaiian power grid.

    Then there’s the really, really bad news: there are very, very few of those massive transformers that power the high voltage backbone of the country. They don’t make them often, nor carry many backups because they last forever; last I heard for the 40 or so biggies they had one spare. Essentially none of them would survive an EMP event, and at maximum production capacity they can make maybe 4 a year working 24/7/365 (what kind of capacity margin do you want when the demand is less than one a year?). So yeah, the grid will be down a *long* time if someone decides to do an EMP attack on the US except for those who live *very* close to the generation plants.

    And as for “hardening” semiconductor based electronics, BB, I’m afraid you’re optimistic. Most military electronics are old school, with really big semiconductor geometries and exotic manufacturing processes. You can, with a great deal of effort and money, make one of those survive an EMP event. Your cell phone, router, computer, etc? Not a chance. We’re lucky to make those survive 500 V spikes you get from assembly, nothing like the minimum 5 KV spikes you’d get from an EMP event. So consumer electronics in general are toast. Some car electronics might survive, but I’m honestly not sure. The stuff that connects directly to the engine might live simply because engines are such a nasty environment electrically that you do really wild things to make those electronics work and survive the spikes that come naturally there.

    I side with the pessimists here. EMP is a nasty, nasty threat to our modern electricity and electronics-dependent lifestyle. I doubt you’d get much if any of the power back on to the big cities in less than 3 months, so you can imagine how that would play out by itself.

  14. QUOTE: “Then there’s the really, really bad news: there are very, very few of those massive transformers that power the high voltage backbone of the country. They don’t make them often, nor carry many backups because they last forever; last I heard for the 40 or so biggies they had one spare.”

    I think this is what I was talking about before, mainly. You need brute force centralized government to do this in advance.

    —-

    Until China can sell consumer stuff to themselves, they really can’t let this happen. The Chinese Kleptocracy would have to leave the country to total anarchy and move to New Zealand.

  15. Well, I guess we have our wake up call. Stock up on survival food, heirloom seeds and ammo. Lots and lots of ammo.

    Perhaps buying a crossbow with about 50 bolts and a wrist rocket type sling shot with about 1000 ball bearings of different sizes,?would also be a good investments.

  16. In the event of EMP, I’ll be the guy driving the Weber fueled, 80 Corvette with portable still in the back. Be sure to bring plenty of ammo and canned food to trade for my liquor. Behave yourself, too…that’s not a cucumber in my pocket, and I’m not happy to see you.

  17. Nerdbert, sounds like the only way to manage it is to localize power generation, install systems that would allow generators to go down gracefully, and then have spare control systems stored in bunkers. Sound about right?

    I’m sure Los Angelinos would love having a lot more power plants in their area….if even you could get the coal or natural gas to them.

  18. “… localize power generation…”

    Compact thorium nukes are the future.

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  20. East of Eden.
    One Second After.
    Walking to Wisconsin.
    Survival Theory, a Preparedness Guide.

    Lots of good ideas and plenty to think about.

  21. An EMP nuke duplicates the effect of a dangerously large solar flare on a regional level.
    We’ve had really bad solar flares in recorded history. Look up the “Carrington Event” of 1859. If we had one of those today, millions or hundreds of millions of people would die. If it came without warning, airplanes would fall out of the sky. Ships would be lost at sea. Lots of ships.
    Fortunately, we will likely have a few days warning. We have solar probes out at Venus’ orbit that would see it coming and give us some idea of its strength.
    How often do Carrington Events occur? Hard to say. If you do not depend on electrical power, you would probably just notice more Aurora Borealis than usual, and closer to the equator than usual (in 1859 they saw Aurora Borealis in Honolulu).
    The solar storm does change the composition of atmospheric ions. These atmospheric ions get frozen in ice at the poles. The data is noisy, but I’ve heard that scientists examining polar ice cores say that a Carrington Event sized solar flare strikes the Earth every five centuries or so.
    One of the foundations of modern science is that there is nothing special about our time and place. If a Carrington Event occurred a century and a half ago, they probably aren’t terribly rare. They come centuries or millennia apart, not eons apart. Compare this with AGW, which says that the past is NOT a guide to the future. According to AGW, the global temp a century from now will be nothing like it has been for the last ten thousand years.
    You can harden electrical infrastructure against a Carrington Event. It’s not cheap.
    You need redundancy. You need grids that are isolated, and that makes them economically inefficient.
    You know the X37B? The unmanned reusable spacecraft the air force does mysterious things with in space?
    I am dead certain that one of the things it does it does is space environment studies. This means measuring how the space environment degrades materials and electronics. The reason I am dead certain of this is because to do the science right, you need to post mortem the materials/semi conductors, and the X37B is the only way we have of bringing back to earth material we have launched into space (other than a Soyuz ride).

  22. I am dead certain that one of the things it does it does is space environment studies. This means measuring how the space environment degrades materials and electronics. The reason I am dead certain of this is because to do the science right, you need to post mortem the materials/semi conductors [….]

    Not necessarily. There are plenty of places to do the nasties to semiconductors. We build test equipment to check the input voltage resistance, you can dump the chips in front of particle accelerators, etc. (I have a *ton* of stories about dealing with particle accelerators and electronics from my past lives.) Space is a *little* different, but we’ve been putting things up there long enough to know roughly what to do. The problem is that mitigation would more than double the price of the chips in something like a pager, not to mention what it would do the price of an iPhone, which I’d put conservatively at 4-8x what it is now.

    When CERN was building their detectors they kept coming to the company I worked for. Since I was the analog interface to external companies I had to sit down and ask them why in Heaven’s name they were coming to us. We were prohibitively expensive for small volume folks like them. It turned out that for a reasonably advanced process node we were 6x more radiation tolerant than the next competitor. Not that we intended it, it just worked out that way, so they dumped a ton of money on us.

  23. BB:

    Nerdbert, sounds like the only way to manage it is to localize power generation, install systems that would allow generators to go down gracefully, and then have spare control systems stored in bunkers. Sound about right?

    Yeah, shorter lines would be helpful. Before so many regional nets were integrated in these really large 10-20 state networks the lines were much more resistant to this just because the size was smaller. But it’s also easier to put margin into the smaller transformers and whatnot than it is into the behemoths that we have now. The issue, though, is the cost. What we have now is cheap and allows places like NY, VT, and CA to delude themselves that they’re cutting their emissions while in fact all they’re doing is outsourcing them to nearby states.

  24. I think this is what I was talking about before, mainly. You need brute force centralized government to do this in advance.

    TFS, good luck with that. The incentives are all wrong. We’re talking very low probability events, the kind that electric governing boards *love* to ignore so that they can boast that they’re keeping costs low for consumers. Take, for example, power in your neighborhood. If it goes out often, you can usually trace that back to power lines going down. Why are more buried to prevent those outages? Cost, of course.

    My buddies in the power sector will tell you their opinions of the power boards after a few beers, but I’ll attach a language warning if you do ask them…

  25. So in the case of an electrical calamity, whether natural or man-made, there is a case to be made for wind and solar farms? Or will they get fried as well because they are connected to the grid? Same question for portable generators, will they get fried if on standby? Thanks all for a great discussion and info.

  26. I think, Nerbert, that they do materials experiments in space because it is not possible to foresee all of the effects of the space environment. NASA does materials experiments on the ISS:
    https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/research/experiments/1.html
    The page isn’t terribly informative, but it seems that they are especially interested in degradation caused by atomic oxygen and micrometeorites.
    IIRC, one of the ways space seems to fight against us is that radiation hardening of integrated circuits means bigger integrated circuits, so you get less bang for the buck.
    A lot of my info comes from a NASA scientist named Sten Odenwald. Odenwald thinks that NASA and satellite builders are incentivized to downplay the effects of space weather on man made satellites because the problem is expensive to solve.

  27. Odenwald thinks that NASA and satellite builders are incentivized to downplay the effects of space weather on man made satellites because the problem is expensive to solve.

    Yeah, that’s an understatement. You don’t get much protection from radiation and a stray alpha particle can disrupt memories, calculations, etc.

    A chip made for space used to be made on a special process line, where the process was tweaked to minimize disruptions, and with a ton of redundancy so that the calculations were verified. The problem being that cutting edge fabs are now going for $4B on up, so the tweaks for specialized lines just aren’t economically viable for the low volumes of space-borne chips. These days they aren’t even doing redundancy on chip, they’re doing it with chips in parallel, which isn’t as effective but it’s cheaper in that NASA doesn’t have to spend the money on developing chips. And I can tell you from personal experience that there’s no way in h*ll that NASA can do competitive chip design. They’re fighting with both feet in cement shoes given conditions inside and the Federal rules. Contractors stand a chance, but it’s getting to be massively expensive to make big chips since that means big teams. There’s a reason that nearly all the “chip design” inside the government are FPGAs now.

    I think, Nerbert, that they do materials experiments in space because it is not possible to foresee all of the effects of the space environment.

    Very, very few of the materials experiments involve chips. I haven’t heard of one in years. Chips are pretty well sealed from the atmosphere (corroded wires will destroy performance, for example), so most of the “space effects” tend to be radiation related and those are pretty well understood and easy to test next to accelerators.

    one of the ways space seems to fight against us is that radiation hardening of integrated circuits means bigger integrated circuits, so you get less bang for the buck

    Yep, in all sorts of ways. Size allows you to have a cosmic ray event and stand a chance to survive to calculate again, you just have to make sure that the net charge generated in the substrate doesn’t disturb the circuit. Then, ideally, you do things like checksums on your logic to verify functionality. But all that means bigger chips using older, more power hungry technologies possibly on custom lines or at least custom tooling, very expensive custom design, etc. In a spacecraft you might be able to justify the expense based on how much a launch costs, but terrestrially you can’t justify it.

  28. nerdbert: This is what you are talking about ***in reverse***

    http://tinyurl.com/kdzxwa2

    Believing in government—now— given the changes started under Woodrow Wilson, is a mental disorder.

    Believing the government production of non-public goods is a mental disorder.

    Liberalism is a mental disorder.

  29. Remember when Dick Cheny recommended that everyone “go shopping” after 9/11 to help the economy for the war fight? Greenspan was already easing like crazy before that. Even back then, the debt to GDP, our economy based on credit growth regardless of the quality of that credit, was processors. Some dumbass from the Fed said the same thing after 2008.

    Do you think the statist inflationism game can keep going if we have some frank leadership on EMP civlil defense? No.

    The racket of statism is falling apart everywhere in the West. Mises.org is right about everything.

  30. “was processors”

    I have no idea how that sentence was supposed to end. LOL

    Try “was the system.” In reality, it’s been precarious like that since the 50’s or so. Our geopolitical edge and birth rate kept the ponzi going.

    We are going to get a deflationary, Ron Paul world the hard way. That is the only decent way for man ti live. It is inevitable. Get David Stockman’s book.

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