TCS Daily

Altitude Sickness

By John J. Miller - December 4, 2002 12:00 AM

If Saddam Hussein has the bomb, plus the ability and desire to use it, what will he do?

He might target a concentration of U.S. forces in the Gulf region, or perhaps Tel Aviv. Either would have the potential to deliver enormous casualties and a mortifying blow to Iraq's enemies, though Hussein would have to overcome his country's history of lousy ballistic accuracy as well as the much-improved missile defenses now held by Americans and Israelis. There's a very good chance he would fail outright.

Which means he'd look for an alternative. He'd want it to be technically feasible, able to inflict severe damage, and limit the risk of nuclear reprisal. Unfortunately for us, such an option is available to any nuclear power able to loft a warhead a few hundred miles straight above the earth: a detonation in low-earth orbit, where hundreds of satellites now operate. The explosion would wreak havoc on modern economies everywhere, downgrade U.S. military capability, and avoid the murderous destruction that would make massive retaliation an automatic response.

Forty years ago, the United States tested a 1.4 megaton device code named Starfish Prime over the Pacific Ocean. It was one in a top-secret series of high-altitude blasts, whose effects weren't completely understood back then. On July 9, 1962, Starfish Prime soared 248 miles above sea level and lit up the night sky. The event is semi-famous for having disrupted communications in the Pacific and even (perhaps apocryphally) setting off burglar alarms in Hawaii.

Ever since, military planners have understood the utility of detonating a bomb above enemy territory: The resulting electromagnetic pulse (EMP) would fry a nation's electronic equipment. During the Cold War, it was widely believed that first explosion in a nuclear offensive wouldn't have a "ground zero" - instead, it would occur a few hundred miles upward. A burst 30 miles above the earth's surface would have a radius of nearly 500 miles. A burst 300 miles above it would have a radius of nearly 1,500 miles - enough to encompass the continental United States, if the bomb blew over Kansas. Much of our national-security infrastructure is "hardened" against such an event, but commercial electronics aren't - and national security relies upon them, too. (For a good summary of the EMP problem, plus an assessment of U.S. vulnerability, see this report by Jack Spencer of the Heritage Foundation.)

The good news is that Saddam Hussein lacks the rocket power to lob a warhead over the United States. Neither do the two other charter members of the Axis of Evil, Iran and North Korea.

Yet Starfish Prime taught another lesson - one that mattered less during the Cold War but matters more now. Within 10 days of the test, radiation from the blast had crippled at least three and possibly four satellites.

Today, the right kind of nuclear detonation would threaten hundreds of satellites. That is because of something called the "Christofilos Effect," named after Nicholas Christofilos, the physicist who predicted it. In short, a blast just outside the earth's atmosphere (which ends about 60 miles above sea level) would produce enough artificial radiation to blanket the globe in the space where about 250 low-earth orbit satellites operate. Some would fail immediately. Over the course of several weeks, this radiation would drastically shorten the lives of all the others. Military satellites are hardened to survive this kind of assault, but non-military ones aren't. The Hubble Space Telescope, for instance, is expected to function for about 15 more years; its lifespan would dwindle to just a few months. A Department of Defense report last year estimated that it would cost $100 billion to replace all the civilian satellites now in low-earth orbit. To complicate matters, it might take two years for all the radiation to clear out and make the environment safe again for ordinary satellites.

Consider all the things satellites give us: Communications, imaging, mapping, navigation - so much of which we take for granted. The economic cost of their disappearance would be staggering. September 11 may have had a bad effect on our economy, but it would pale in comparison to a nuke going off in space.

There would be military consequences as well: The Pentagon currently relies upon many civilian satellites to support its operations around the globe. These assets would vanish. Without them, fighting a war like the recent one in Afghanistan would be made much more difficult.

So would fighting a war in Iraq. The first Gulf War is sometimes called America's first space war because U.S. forces were so enabled by satellites. Reliance on space has only grown over the last decade. Today, it is impossible to think about American military might without also thinking about spacepower.

This is what makes low-earth orbit such a tempting target for the likes of Saddam Hussein: With a single shot, he has the potential to throttle our economy and disable our military. As a bonus, the explosion inflicts no direct casualties, complicating the question of retaliation. The appeasers among us might try to weaken national resolve.

Our enemies don't even have to think about accuracy, just altitude - aiming a warhead at empty space is all the job demands. That may require some rocket science, but not really hard rocket science. In other words, each member of the Axis of Evil probably already knows how to do this. The only question is whether they have the bomb and the will. Or, in a world of rapid proliferation, when they'll have them.

John J. Miller is a writer for National Review.

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