Challenge: Defeat Ballistic Missile Attacks From the South

by Henry (Hank) F. Cooper

October 22 marked the 52nd anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s television announcement that Soviet ships were transporting nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles to Cuba – constituting a mortal threat to the United States. Miami was only 90 miles away and those missiles could have reached much farther.

Actually, the situation was worse than President Kennedy knew. After the Cold War, former Soviet authorities revealed that 100 nuclear weapons were already in Cuba and Fidel Castro wanted to keep them. Soviet General Secretary Nikita S. Khrushchev overruled Castro and removed them as the crisis wound down. Notably, the United States removed its nuclear-armed missiles from Turkey.  

Many believe this crisis was the closest America came to nuclear war during the Cold War. The United States now confronts another existential threat from the South, in at least two ways.

A Modern Nuclear Missile Crisis As illustrated in Figure 1, a North Korean freighter was caught in June 2013 smuggling military cargo from Cuba through the Panama Canal, into the Gulf of Mexico. Included were two SA-2 missiles, each capable of carrying a nuclear weapon, as the Soviets designed during the Cold War. They could have been launched to attack the United States from that freighter – or Cuba, Venezuela, or some other country – and currently there is little or no defense against them.

Such nuclear weapons need not be exploded in U.S. cities. Indeed, their effects would be far more devastating if detonated at high altitude to produce an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) to debilitate major segments of the currently unhardened U.S. electric power grid – with cascading disastrous effects over much of the nation.

This threat wasentified by the congressionally mandated EMP Commission in 2004 and 2008 and reiterated by many informed authorities, but the grid is still unhardened against such attacks. In addition, the United States operates no missile defense against such threats, although the U.S. government could rapidly and inexpensively deploy one.

Figure 1 also illustrates that Iran and North Korea launch their satellites southward such that they pass over the South Polar region and before approaching the United States from the South. North Korea is reportedly again preparing to launch a satellite, no doubt with Iranian scientists and engineers present as in the past.

If such a satellite carries a nuclear weapon, it can be detonated over a hundred miles above the United States in its first orbit to produce an EMP that could take down the unhardened U.S. electric grid for an indefinite period. Such an attack would return America’s current just-in-time economy to that of the 19th century and leave many millions more people at risk without the life support and security of the agrarian society of that era. 

Credible estimates suggest most of the over 300 million people in the United States would die within the next year from starvation and the consequent chaos. For example, Dr. William R. Graham – former director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and chairman of the EMP Commission – so testified before the House Armed Services Committee on 8 July 2008, and numerous others echo his and the commission’s statements.

Response: Upgrade U.S. Missile Defenses U.S. homeland ballistic missile defense (BMD) sites in Alaska and California provide a limited defense against North Korean and Iranian intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that approach the United States from the North. The government currently plans to deploy another ground-based site in the northeastern United States to increase that capability, especially against Iranian ICBMs. However, the threat from over the South Polar region has largely been ignored.

In particular, Americans are defenseless against ballistic missiles launched from vessels in the Gulf of Mexico or against a “satellite” attack from the South. That condition could be rapidly rectified by employing existing relatively inexpensive missile defenses.

To counter ballistic missiles launched from offshore vessels, the United States could employ its sea-based defenses, deployed on over 30 cruisers and destroyers at sea around the world. If prepared to engage, such defenses are inherently capable of shooting down missiles launched from almost anywhere.

The U.S. Navy has repeatedly demonstrated that the Aegis BMD system is capable of shooting down attacking missiles while they are ascending from their launch points and above the Earth’s atmosphere on their way to their targets. However, the ships must be appropriately located, with crews trained and ready, to shoot down missiles intended to attack the United States.

On a random day in 2013, there were four to six Aegis BMD ships along the eastern seaboard or in an east coast port. Under this condition, the east coast can be defended if the Aegis BMD ships are appropriately located and their crews are trained and ready to engage. Those in charge of homeland defenses can assure these conditions are met.

Since Aegis ships usually do not traverse the Gulf of Mexico, threats from the Gulf likely would remain. The United States could affordably purchase and deploy on military bases around the Gulf the same Aegis Ashore system it is building in Romania (to be operational within months) and Poland (to be operational in 2018). No new development is required, just the agreement of the local and state authorities for placing these systems on bases such as Tyndall Air Force Base in the Florida panhandle – the location of First Air Force, the command responsible for the air defense of the continental United States.

This country is building Aegis Ashore bases to protect NATO allies against Iranian ballistic missiles, surely it can build the same “football-size” installations to protect U.S. citizens. There already is a site for testing in Hawaii, so additional sites around the Gulf of Mexico, and possibly along other coasts, could close operations gaps in defense coverage provided by the normally operating Aegis BMD ships.

Furthermore, the first generation Aegis system was used in 2008 to shoot down a dying satellite before it could spread its toxic waste on populated regions on Earth. Today’s improved Aegis BMD system retains an improved inherent capability to support homeland defense missions involving threats from satellites approaching North America from the South. What is required technically is sensor information to launch the Aegis interceptors on the right track to complete the intercept with their on-board sensors – a continuously improving global sensor capability.

If a satellite is at an altitude that exceeds the Aegis interceptor’s altitude range, then ground-based interceptors on Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, can complete the intercept, provided they have the needed upstream sensor cues. Aegis BMD ships also can help with this capability, as well as other sensors such as forward-based radar and space-based sensor systems.

Bottom Lines Other initiatives to help counter the existential EMP threat are discussed in a 3 October 2014 Investor’s Business Daily article and elaborated in High Frontier’s email message on 8 October 2014igh HHiH. The above discussion simply emphasizes the reality of the manmade, ballistic missile threat and possible, essentially off-the-shelf, means to defend against it.

The electric grid also should be hardened against nuclear EMP effects because no defense is perfect. If that is done, the grid also will be hardened against nature’s EMP threat, which is produced by solar storms. No defense will protect against natural EMP from a solar storm that will one day occur, but defenses can be built faster than the grid can be hardened. Both remedies to the nation’s current vulnerability should be initiated without further delay.

Finally, hardening the grid against only the solar storm-produced EMP will not assure the grid is hardened to the shorter wavelength EMP threat posed by a high-altitude nuclear explosion. If, for political reasons, the solar threat is taken as the primary reason for hardening the grid, that hardening effort should accommodate the entire EMP spectrum to protect against nuclear EMP attack.


Ambassador Henry (Hank) F. Cooper is chairman of High Frontier and a former acquisition executive for all U.S. ballistic missile defenses. He also served in several other senior U.S. government acquisition and policy positions, including as President Ronald Reagan’s chief negotiator at the Geneva Defense and Space Talks with the Soviet Union and U.S. Air Force deputy assistant secretary for strategic and space systems. He currently is focused on helping local, state, and federal authorities protect against the natural and manmade electromagnetic pulse threat by building effective ballistic missile defenses and hardening the electric grid. This article is adapted from his 22 October 2014 presentation at a South Carolina InfraGard Members Alliance Conference on Sullivan’s Island.