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The Next Hours of World War III
By William B. Scott, Michael J. Coumatos, William J. Birnes
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2009 William B. Scott, Michael J. Coumatos, and William J. Birnes
All rights reserved.
Mayhem in the Heavens
5 MARCH 2011/GEOSYNCHRONOUS ORBIT
An aging Defense Support Program (DSP) satellite positioned 22,500 miles above the western Pacific Ocean was the first to spot a white-hot tail of fire streaking skyward from the Korean peninsula. The spacecraft's infrared telescope captured the missile's heat signature, processed the raw data, and passed them to a microprocessor. That chip compressed millions of digital bits and shot them at light speed to a powerful transmitter, which fired a stream of encrypted pulses to golf-ball-like domes sheltering massive antennas on Earth. Microseconds later, the infrared information appeared as speckles of light on a screen inside the windowless DSP Mission Control center at Buckley Air Force Base, near Denver.
An Air Force staff sergeant operator noted the DSP-detected IR signature, tagged it as an unusual item of interest, and confirmed the information was already triggering automated alerts at the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) Missile Warning Center at Peterson Air Force Base, roughly 80 miles to the south. There, alarms were going off, triggering a well-rehearsed flurry of activity.
The NORAD Command Director cross-checked the data and quickly determined this was, indeed, a missile launch from North Korea. Radars in the Pacific had yet to determine a trajectory, but the required dual-phenomenology criteria were satisfied: Both the DSP's infrared sensor and ground-based radar data said this was real. A potentially deadly missile was en route — somewhere. The crazy little bastard did it! the officer thought grimly.
The NORAD director immediately initiated a missile-event teleconference, knowing the President of the United States and the Canadian Prime Minister would be on the line very soon. Twice in a matter of months! What the hell is going on? the colonel wondered, throat tightening. He'd been on duty the previous year, when Iran launched a nuclear-tipped Shahab-4 missile at a U.S. air base in Italy. Fortunately, degraded navigation signals from maser-damaged Global Positioning System satellites had misguided that ballistic missile to a watery grave, and one of Iran's few, highly prized nuclear warheads had fizzled instead of going high-order.
The colonel's role was to immediately determine whether North America was under attack, then issue a simple yea or nay. So far, his people couldn't tell; the missile was still streaking straight up, its liquid-fueled engines relentlessly delivering thousands of pounds of thrust. He relayed only what he did know: A long-range Taepodong-4 missile had launched from a North Korean site that NORAD, U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM), and most of America's spook agencies had been monitoring constantly for several days.
A recent flurry of activity was detected by round-the-clock National Reconnaissance Office "spy" guardians orbiting in deep space, attracting considerable attention. Consequently, the North's launch came as no surprise. But where the missile was headed, and what it was carrying, might be. And these days, the United States' national security complex loathed surprises originating in Asia.
The powerful missile easily could be armed with one of North Korea's few nuclear weapons, a primitive atomic device that most assuredly had been rat-holed in deep-underground bunkers since late 2007, when the hermetic nation had agreed to dismantle its nuclear program. None of the Central Intelligence Agency's Eastern Asia experts believed Kim Jong Il had actually accounted for all of his fissile material, even though international inspection agencies declared the North "nuclear free," except for Western-built nuclear reactors generating electrical power. The CIA knew quite well the crazy-like-a-fox dictator had hidden several nukes. Where they were hidden, the CIA didn't know, but obviously far from the prying eyes of those international experts who so wanted to believe that North Korea had truly abandoned its nuclear weapons program.
"Where are you headed, Dong-bird ...?" the director muttered, his eyes riveted to huge wall-mounted screens displaying a computer-generated track of the Taepodong's flight path.
"Missile launch confirmed. Type is a North Korean Taepodong-Four. Trajectory undetermined. For now, North America is not — repeat not — under attack," he finally said. His preliminary assessment was instantly routed to Washington, Ottawa, and several key military command centers scattered across the North American continent.
GEOSYNCHRONOUS ORBIT/SPACE-BASED INFRARED SYSTEM
Cued by the DSP spacecraft's infrared detector, one of the U.S.'s new Space Based Infrared System, or SBIRS, platforms was also tracking the rapid ascent of that Taepodong missile. The satellite's sensitive infrared staring array and sophisticated tracking algorithms were poised, ready to detect any hint of the missile starting to arc over, which would reveal its ultimate target. Once that arc was identified, computers would define an oblong "footprint," projecting where the missile and its ominous warhead might impact.
But it hadn't pitched over yet. Instead, the missile continued to climb vertically, streaking through the atmosphere's thin upper layer and into the almost-vacuum of near-space.
One hundred miles ... 120 miles ... 130 ... Then a massive explosion of scorching ultra-white light temporarily blinded both the DSP and SBIRS spacecraft's thermally sensitive "eyes." Instantly, nuclear detectors, or nudets, on both of the missile-warning platforms, plus similar nudets on a handful of Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites in mid-Earth orbit, registered a barrage of radioactive particles and high-energy gamma rays. Once the mayhem was sorted out, all those nudet alarms were converted to electronic signals beamed back to Earth.
The NORAD Command Director choked on his coffee, unable to fully grasp what he was witnessing. Holy shit! Nudet! The dumb shits ... His eyes scanned several screens. Other officers in the center were confirming what he saw, their reports delivered in crisp, concise terms. He squeezed a phone receiver against his ear, voicing words he'd hoped would never cross his lips, not yet comprehending their ramifications.
"Nudet! We have a nuclear detonation ... in space! No altitude reading at this time. Repeat: A confirmed nudet was recorded, while the Taepodong missile was still on ascent." The director rapidly scanned the oversized wall display, as well as several computer screens at the command position. His mind raced ahead, while also sifting through the professional summaries from his crew. NORAD missile-warning specialists' concise, unemotional reports rippled across the command center, following procedures that had been practiced for decades. A message popped up in the corner of a computer screen, drawing the director's attention. There! A key confirmation he'd been looking for, a critical assessment from the Air Force's top-dog nuclear experts: "AFTAC confirms nudet at 137-mile altitude," it read.
Sensitive nuclear detectors mounted on DSP and SBIRS missile-warning satellites, as well as backups on GPS navigation spacecraft, had registered massive emissions of deadly gamma rays and beta particles — high-energy electrons — that could only have come from a nuclear detonation. Those data were funneled from stations scattered across the globe to an operations post in the Air Force Technical Applications Center headquarters at Patrick Air Force Base, Florida. Once a super-secret unit, AFTAC was the clearinghouse for all data acquired by space-based nuclear detectors. Its highly trained experts would soon determine precisely how powerful and sophisticated the North Korean weapon had been.
Not since the tense Cold War days of the 1960s had a nuclear weapon exploded in or on the edge of space. Today, the world's first space war had just reignited in dramatic fashion.
U.S. STRATEGIC COMMAND HEADQUARTERS/COMMAND POST
General Howard Aster's lengthy strides forced his aide, Lieutenant Colonel Thad "Burner" Burns, who also served as U.S. Strategic Command's executive officer, to break into a trot. Aster swiped a coded badge through a cipher-lock reader beside the command post's heavy door and entered his security code. A solid snap announced the STRATCOM commander was authorized entry. Aster grabbed the door's handle and flung the barrier wide, racing into the room and leaping a few steps up to the battle cab.
"What do we have, Dave? Where's it headed?" Aster demanded. The four-star former fighter pilot had left the command's wargame center the instant his handheld communicator had sounded off and displayed a chilling phrase on its tiny screen: NK MSL LAUNCH.
"Sir, the North Koreans just detonated a nuke in space, about a hundred and thirty-seven miles high," Army Lieutenant General Dave Forester clipped, eyes still scanning the command post's wall-size screens. Graphics and text flashed across a single giant display dedicated to the Pacific Command, or PACOM, region.
"In space? What the hell ...?" Aster's brow knitted, trying to make sense of this unexpected twist. The North Koreans had supposedly "denuclearized" four years ago, in compliance with a six-nation agreement that had sent tons of fuel oil and food to the starving nation since then. Evidently, the North's weird, but wily, dictator had squirreled away at least one nuclear device, successfully hiding the weapon from dozens of diligent inspectors. Diplomats from Washington to Tokyo, Seoul, and Beijing were still congratulating themselves on the success of those nuclear-disarmament negotiations, despite evidence that the North had restarted its weapons program.
So much for denuking-through-diplomacy, Aster thought, his rugged, square-jawed features reflecting the strain of recent months. Since America's satellites had come under attack in April 2010, crippling the United States' ability to monitor the activities of Earth's bad actors from orbiting platforms in space, Aster's STRATCOM team had been under intense, round-the-clock pressure. As the nation's primary military center of strategic expertise, STRATCOM assimilated intelligence and other data received from myriad sources across the globe, converted it to knowledge, then delivered options to top officials in Washington. Ultimately, Aster's job was to defend the United States through the employment of its long-reach military forces, but the first order of business was understanding any particular situation. At this moment, the general didn't.
Forester, STRATCOM's three-star director of operations, pointed to a dotted line on the big screen, its tail anchored in a graphic of the Korean peninsula. "We expected the missile to arc over at any second, but the damned thing blew up! Nudets on several spacecraft registered prompt gamma and beta radiation, and the infrared missile-warning platforms — DSP and SBIRS — confirmed a super-hot explosion. Radars showed the missile had disappeared; no arc-over or trajectory whatsoever. No question, sir. The damned North Koreans popped a nuke on the fringe of space. Several of our space platforms and a hell of a lot of electronics stuff all over the Pacific region are probably fried."
Aster's mind was racing, trying to fully grasp the far-reaching implications of Forester's abbreviated assessment. "Get a status on all our spacecraft in LEO, Dave. Everything — national-security, civil, and commercial birds. If that thing went off at a hundred thirty-seven miles up, you're right; it created one hell of an electromagnetic pulse." A nuclear explosion 30–200 miles above the Earth's surface, in that broad region also known as Low-Earth orbit, or LEO, where the atmosphere thins and space begins, would produce a massive flux of energetic electrons (beta particles) and create a powerful electromagnetic pulse. That EMP would induce unwanted current spikes in wires and circuits, frying sensitive electronics for hundreds of miles in all directions.
Forester fired a verbal order to a nearby officer, an Air Force major, who nodded and went to work at a large-screen workstation. Text flowed across his display, fed into the command center from hundreds of stations around the globe.
"Sir, prelim only," the major announced, reading the rapidly changing data, "but it looks like a DMSP, a couple of NRO imagers, and several sigint birds are down already. We're polling commercial operators right now, but a few Excalibur comsats and at least one EarthView imaging platform were in the potential-kill circle. Uh ... Schriever's now showing some degradation of more GPS navsats, too, but not from EMP, of course. Gotta be from prompt radiation."
Aster mentally translated. Loss of a DMSP — a Defense Meteorological Satellite Program bird — meant military forces in the northern Pacific would be starving for timely weather data. A handicap, but not devastating, as long as those two Navy aircraft carrier groups steaming northward in the Pacific didn't run into a stretch of bad weather.
The National Reconnaissance Office's low-altitude electro-optical and signal-intelligence platforms, America's ultra-secret spy satellites, had taken a severe hit, though. Even the advanced constellation of small, quick-reaction surveillance "nanosats" that Brigadier General "Speed" Griffin had flown to orbit in the ultra-secret "Blackstar" XOV spaceplane almost a year ago more than likely were silenced. As quick-reaction spacecraft, the nanosats were built with commercial electronics gear, instead of military-specified "radiation-hardened" components. The other milspace birds were rad-hardened, but age and constant bombardment by cosmic rays had taken a toll on their resistance. Collectively, those spacecraft losses would definitely hurt intel-gathering in Pacific Command's Area of Responsibility, drastically reducing America's knowledge of activities inside North Korea, China, and other Pacific Rim locales. In essence, the nation's space-based eyes on that part of the globe were now blinded.
Shit! Even less situational awareness! Aster, the tall, trim, prematurely white-haired STRATCOM commander fumed silently, his jaw muscles twitching as he scanned myriad data presentations. In sports terms, the six-foot-seven former Air Force Academy basketball star mused grimly, we have a terrific first team of national security satellites, but there's absolutely no bench. Our first string's been whacked severely, and we don't have replacements to send in. That could mean losing the whole damned game!
The high-level cram course on nuclear weapons effects Aster had received, when he took over as STRATCOM chief, had provided a basic understanding of electromagnetic pulse effects. But that was thin knowledge, at best. The general needed more to assess the full spectrum of impacts now.
"Major, why would GPS be affected by that nuke? All the Navstars are in much higher mid-Earth orbits, something like twelve-thousand-plus miles, right? That's too high for EMP effects, 'cause there's no air to ionize that far out."
"Correct, sir. But that detonation created an extremely high radiation flux, and it's basically charging up the Van Allen Belt, even though it's way out there, too. In turn, that causes what we call 'secondary radiation effects' in electronic circuits on GPS birds — things like electronic gate latch-ups, data losses, and other effects. It also created an ion-charged layer in the upper atmosphere, which acts like a shield that blocks the weak signals from GPS and other satellites. Most GPS navigation and timing signals are now prevented from reaching Earth, especially out in the Pacific. Probably going to affect the downlinks from some GEO birds, too," the major added, referring to platforms in geostationary orbit, 22,500 miles from Earth.
Aster was impressed by the officer's concise, no-nonsense explanation. No techno-gibberish or lofty science to impress and baffle an old fighter-jock general. He glanced at a name tag on the major's flight suit, committing it to memory.
Excerpted from Counterspace by William B. Scott, Michael J. Coumatos, William J. Birnes. Copyright © 2009 William B. Scott, Michael J. Coumatos, and William J. Birnes. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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