The complicated politics of E1
So when it became apparent in the late 1990s and early 2000s that there was some real risk that the E1 pulse might produce something closer to the movie-nightmare version of EMP -- a really intense magnetic flux over a really wide area -- a classic Washington "iron triangle" formed around it. For those of you who don't know the term, an iron triangle consists of an executive branch agency or agencies at one corner, Congressional staffers of the relevant committee members (and especially heads) at the second corner, and private contractors/NGOs at the third. Personnel and ideas flow freely between the corners, with the agencies doling money to the private sector by authorization of Congress. Each corner protects, defends, and enhances the other two.
Beginning with Congressional hearings during the Bush administration and some extensively funded research projects, there has been a fair bit of research money poured into possible severe EMP effects on infrastructure (by which they usually mean the power grid and communications networks). As a result there is a Republican-dominated EMP Caucus in the House, a dozen or so private research companies and university labs doing EMP research, and an intersection of DoD, FERC, and various other inter-agency liaisons, all dedicated to the investigation.
So far, so good; it's scary, we don't know nearly enough about it, it ought to be investigated.
It is conspicuous, however, that policy recommendations coming out of that iron triangle have tended to involve large amounts of money for various ways of hardening the infrastructure, and that that money would flow into some pretty small corners of the military industrial complex. This is going to make some people and companies very rich, make the careers of some civil servants, and do all the things that association with a successful program do for a congressthing and his/her staff and party.
Remember, this is resting on computer models built on lab simulations, measurements of normal conditions, and a reasonably strong hypothesis about how to interpret two badly-recorded anomalous events 50 years ago.
So, since our audience here is people with an interest in government administration, is it time to add a line to the table on slide 3 for "Continent wide, billions to 10s of billions of nT/min, immediate and expensive hardening needed right now?"
Based on what I see, this is many billions of dollars of policy hanging on a pretty slim basis. That doesn't mean it will be forever; the research should be continued, the case made. The people working on this are clever and if there's a way to reach a clear, well-supported conclusion, they'll get there. But based on what has been published so far, they don't quite look like they'll get there yet.
This is not necessarily a matter of anyone's doing anything other than their best; almost by definition, if an event is rare or improbable enough and risky enough, and if the remedies are expensive enough, you run into just these kinds of debates. At exactly what point, for example, did or should scientists move from trying to verify climate change to trying to figure out what to do about it? The evidence began fairly shaky; has firmed up quite a bit; it has not firmed up enough for everyone yet (and may never).
Here's the other reason why I don't think we need to worry about the carefully engineered super-EMP: while it seems to be technically possible (as much as a layman without a security clearance can judge) to make a prompt-gamma-enhanced warhead, it is probably very difficult for any but the very most advanced and experienced bomb-builders worldwide -- which means the US and the Russians, probably the Chinese and EU, and very likely no one else. It's not something just anybody puts together with some reading in the college library.
To achieve the really frightening E1 effects, furthermore, that bomb has to go to a fairly precise altitude over the target area, which is a job for a good-sized rocket, and any old rocket won't do that, either.
Mating a bomb to a rocket is also extremely non-trivial.
So we can eliminate terrorist groups and criminal gangs from doing all that; it's just too hard for it to be credible.
That leaves states. A state, by definition, has territory, people, and resources subject to retaliation, and a leadership that can be hunted down and shot, or at least dragged to the Hague and humiliated. True, if that state were able to absolutely, positively blanket its enemy with a billion nT/min, there might be nothing left capable of retaliating --
-- if in fact the science is all correct
-- if there's nothing they don't know about from not having done any tests
-- if every single part of that complex specialized nuclear bomb and rocket combination works right the first time you ever put it together (remember, you can't test).
As the leadership of a great and powerful state, would you ever take such a bet?
If there's a danger at all, it's that a collapsing state with nuclear weapons and rockets might take a wild shot on the way down, and everything might work perfectly, and the EMP would turn out to be much easier to produce and much bigger than could have been expected. Or in short, a really crazy government on its way out, takes its one sorta-working bomb, puts it on its almost-working ICBM, everything works, and then it turns out that all the unknowns in the research actually favored the attacker.
Again, how crazy do they have to be to take that bet? Knowing what will happen if it doesn't pay off, given that what they were trying to do will be screamingly apparent?
Theoretically, in martial arts, there are some "death strikes" that are supposed to enable a 110-pound desk jockey to kill or incapacitate a professional heavyweight boxer. Now imagine that desk jockey has done extensive library research and read the daylights out of descriptions of death strikes, and furthermore has lifted some weights and maybe even taken some tae kwon do. How smart would he be to attack that heavyweight, even so?
So, adding it all up: the science is still forming and being done. The cost of doing the recommended policy is enormous and looks as if it will mostly flow to one political faction and their cronies. And for an opposing nation (one of the very few that could) to launch such an attack requires some suicidal mixture of stupidity and madness.
Check back in a few years, but for right now, this one doesn't look like a reasonable deal to me. Rather, it looks like an iron triangle trying to hit a jackpot.