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June 25, 2020
Notes from the Pentagon

China hypersonic EMP threat
China is developing electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapons that can fry all electronics over vast distances and could deploy the weapons on its new hypersonic missiles, according to a report by a security group.

Peter Pry, a former CIA officer and now director of the EMP Task Force on National and Homeland Security, said in the report that China has high-altitude EMP weapons and super-EMP weapons designed to destroy or damage all electronic components over wide areas. Mr. Pry believes the EMP threat posed by China will be magnified if the arms are used with hypersonic missiles.

“China is on the verge of deploying or has already deployed hypersonic weapons that could potentially be armed with nuclear or non-nuclear EMP warheads, greatly increasing the threat of surprise attack against U.S. forces in the Pacific and against the United States,” Mr. Pry said in a report made public last week.

Hypersonic missiles are weapons that travel more than five times the speed of sound and can maneuver to avoid interception.

China has announced that its hypersonic glide vehicle, known as the DF-17, is close to deployment.

The glider is launched atop a ballistic missile and then released into the zone between air and space.

A second type of hypersonic missile is a cruise missile powered by a special engine known as a scramjet.

Both are considered highly accurate missiles that can deliver either nuclear or conventional warheads.

According to Mr. Pry, hypersonic missiles are ideally suited for conducting a nuclear detonation in space, one that can damage or disrupt electronic systems including automobiles and weapons systems.

Hypersonic missiles carrying EMP warheads are well suited for the high-speed missiles because their operating altitude, about 60 miles high, is “the optimum height-of-burst for maximizing [high-altitude] EMP field strength against a surface target that might be EMP-hardened, like an aircraft carrier group or an ICBM wing,” the report said.

“Super-EMP warheads, in design resembling a low-yield tactical nuclear weapon like a neutron artillery shell, would likely be much smaller and lighter, and certainly much more effective, than any conventional high-explosives warhead for China’s [hypersonic glide vehicles] and [hypersonic cruise missiles],” he stated.

Arming its land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine-launched missiles with super-EMP warheads would allow Beijing to “virtually overnight transform its relatively (allegedly) small nuclear deterrent into a giant killer, capable of flying below U.S. radars and outracing U.S. reaction-time to deliver a HEMP ‘Pearl Harbor,’” Mr. Pry said in the report, “The People’s Republic of China Military Doctrine, Plans, and Capabilities for Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack.”

The State Department’s annual report on compliance with arms agreements was sent to Congress this week and reveals for the first time a second possible Russian breach of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

Disclosure of a potential new violation follows President Trump’s withdrawal from the INF Treaty over Moscow’s development of a ground-launched cruise missile, the SSC-8, that U.S. officials contend is banned by the Cold War-era treaty.

According to the report, the new issue is related to what NATO called Russia’s SS-N-30a naval cruise missile, one that Russia plans to deploy in a ground-launched version.

The SS-N-30, called Kalibr by the Russians, is notable for its deceptive delivery system. It is deployed inside a launcher system designed to look like a standard 40-foot shipping container. Analysts fear Russians could use the deception to deploy a long-range land-attack cruise missile that will not be limited to launch from warships.

The container-basing mode means the missile could be fired from a disguised ship among the thousands of freighters that ply the world’s seas. Russia also could sell the container missile to nations such as Iran and North Korea, which could then turn their merchant ships into missile launch pads.

“In early February 2019, several senior Russian officials, including President [Vladimir] Putin, publicly endorsed proposals to base sea-based Kalibr missiles on land,” said the report, noting that details of the effort are contained in a classified annex to the compliance report.

The INF Treaty banned ground-launched missiles with ranges of 310 to 3,410 miles.

The report notes that endorsement by Mr. Putin of a land-based SS-N-30 does not violate the INF Treaty because at the time of the February 2019 announcement, both the United States and Russia had suspended their obligations under INF.

Also, potential ground-launched INF missiles are not treaty violations unless they are produced, tested and deployed.

“However, the endorsement of these proposals demonstrated Russia’s lack of interest in returning to full compliance with the treaty,” the report said.

When the United States announced its intention to withdraw from the treaty in February 2019, the notification said the government would rescind the withdrawal notice if Moscow came into full compliance with the INF Treaty and destroyed the SSC-8 missiles and launchers.

A U.S. official familiar with U.S.-Russian arms talks in Vienna this week said Russian officials asked the United States to adopt a moratorium on building INF missiles, despite Moscow’s INF Treaty breach and plans for a second. The U.S. side rejected the offer.

Another intelligence disclosure revealed in the State Department’s annual arms compliance report involves Russia’s decadelong push to build the SSC-8 ground-launched cruise missile.

The SSC-8 missile development appears to have begun in the mid-2000s by the Novator design bureau. The report said the SSC-8 closely resembles two other Russian missiles, the R-500 ground-launched cruise missile that is part of the Iskandr short-range missile system and the Kalibr naval cruise missile.

By 2018, “multiple battalions” of the SSC-8 were deployed. The missile is the key reason the United States withdrew from the INF Treaty and began building INF-range missiles.

“Russia was ready to test the SSC-8 cruise missile in the mid- to late 2000s in such a way that appeared purposefully designed to disguise the true nature of the activity,” the report said.

For example, a fixed missile launcher was installed at a section of the Kapustin Yar missile test range that had been used to test treaty-compliant missiles.

Then the Russians tested the SSC-8 beyond the range permitted by INF. That testing is legal only if the missile will not be deployed on ground-based launchers. The INF allowed such testing so ship- or submarine-launched cruise missiles could be built.

By using the fixed launcher for the SSC-8, “Russia was attempting to conceal the fact that the SSC-8 missile was designed to be a ground-launched missile and was therefore a violation of the treaty,” the report said.

Later in the development, the new cruise missile had to be flight-tested to verify its capabilities. Those flight tests also took place at Kapustin Yar.

“To mask the purpose of these tests, Russia was careful to fly the SSC-8 only to distances less than 500 kilometers rather than to its maximum range capability,” the report said.

As part of masking their intentions, the Russians likely assumed building the SSC-8 in parallel with the Iskandr at the same site would fool U.S. intelligence and “would provide sufficient cover for its INF violation,” the report said.

Multiple flight tests of the SSC-8 were carried out by 2015 from both fixed and mobile launchers at Kapustin Yar. Public comments by Russian missile builders included details on other new missiles, but the Russians were “conspicuously silent” on the SSC-8.

“To be clear, the SSC-8 represented a flagrant violation of the INF Treaty that Russia intended to keep secret,” said the report, noting that the new missile can be armed with nuclear or conventional warheads.

“The history of Russia’s attempt to covertly exploit a treaty exception permitting ground-based flight tests of intermediate-range missiles not subject to the treaty, its lack of an explanation for these tests, and its overall secrecy about the [SSC-8 missile] provide important context for Russia’s violation.”

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

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