GERMAN born theoretical physicist, Albert Einstein once said: “I know not with what weapons World War 3 will be fought, but world war four will be fought with sticks and stones.”
He predicted that world war three would be waged with nuclear weapons that would virtually destroy civilisation.
In fact, superpowers are working towards the best possible weaponry with devastating capabilities.
In this regard, Einstein had presumed that the war after that would revert to the Stone Age.
In 1962, the US government set off a 1.4 megatonne nuclear warhead at a height of 399km above Johnston Atoll, Hawaii, in an operation the military named “Starfish Prime”. No one expected the test to impact Hawaii, as it was 1,400km away.
But it produced a sudden burst of electromagnetic pulse (EMP) radiation, which is an intense energy field that can instantly overload and damage electrical circuits from computer to electronic grids for hundreds of kilometres.
The sky turned red. There was radio disruption. Streetlights and telephones went out in Hawaii, California and Alaska, and six satellites above the Pacific were knocked out. The bomb was about 100 times larger than the one which was dropped on Nagasaki but it had no immediate harmful effects on humans because it was not an act of nuclear war.
The entire way of life of a society today relies on electricity and electronic technology. In a worst-case scenario, an EMP event, a threat that is not well understood and lacks the leadership to address, could occur with little or no warning, and have catastrophic effects.
A report by the US Congressional Research Service confirmed that a nuclear EMP attack could collapse the entire electrical grid and directly disrupt transport systems, industry and manufacturing, satellite navigation, telecommunication systems and computers, banking and finance, and food and water infrastructure systems.
Although blackouts can be restored, it would take months. This would not only have immediate effects on the population’s ability to function normally, but would also have devastating long-term effects on the country’s economic structure.
Hospitals would become death traps and this could cost thousands of lives and irreparably cripple a country. It is estimated that the average US city only has enough food and healthcare provisions to last three days. Hunger, disease outbreaks and civil violence may cause death.
No other threat can cause such broad and deep damage to all the critical infrastructure as a nuclear EMP attack.
More than 1,000 jetliners carry about 500,000 passengers in the skies over the US at any given moment. Many, most or virtually all of these would crash, depending on the strength of the EMP field.
The US is the primary target of attack by Iran, North Korea, Russia or China, which are actively developing EMP weapons. Recently, the South China Morning Post reported that “Competition between the US and China could escalate into a Cold War-style rivalry as “Counter-China” and “far-right populist” policymakers dominate the White House.
Zhao Minghao, a senior fellow at the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, surveyed a number of Chinese academics and concluded that “the possibility of a major US-China confrontation and armed conflict can by no means be ruled out”.
Dr Peter Vincent Pry, executive director of the Task Force on National and Homeland Security in America, said there were fears that North Korea was secretly developing the ability to detonate a high-altitude nuclear weapon in space. It has two earth observation satellites that were launched in 2012 and last year.
It is believed that Pyongyang may be taking its inspiration from a plan the former Soviet Union drew up to attack America with an EMP during the Cold War. Besides North Korea, Iran, Russia and China have an EMP attack capability. There is a fear that North Korea and Iran could team up to launch an EMP strike on a “defenceless” US by detonating a nuclear weapon carried by one of their satellites as it passes over the US.
According to the Commission to Assess the Threat to the US from EMP Attack, nuclear EMP attack is part of the military doctrines, plans, and exercises of Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran for a revolutionary new way of warfare against forces and critical civilian infrastructure.
The technology to carry out such attacks already exists.
Heads of government should act with integrity and not use it to attack or threaten other nations. Leaders and nations with such destructive capabilities need to come to their senses and not put humanity at risk.
The writer holds a professional chair in crime and criminology, Institute of Crime and Criminology, HELP University