Dominic_Thor_Pad_sm9 July 1962.  At Johnston Atoll, a scrap of coral in a remote part of the Pacific, a Thor IRBM stands on the pad as launch preparations are carried out.  Loaded with test equipment, its prime payload is a W-49/Mk-4 RV payload.  The target, however, is not to be found on a map or chart.

Instead, today’s launch is part of the DOMINIC series of atmospheric nuclear tests. These tests were ordered following the re-start of Soviet atmospheric testing, most notable of which was the test of the Царь-бомба (lit: “tsar bomba“), the largest nuclear explosion to date.

The test today is one of some 36 planned tests under DOMINIC.  Most of these, like Housatonic, were air-dropped weapons (Housatonic had a yield of ~8Mt). Some were tests of complete weapons systems – like Swordfish and Frigate Bird (the former a test of the nuclear ASROC and the latter, the only complete test of a US ICBM with a nuclear warhead — an operational shot of the Polaris I SLBM).  The Thor on the pad today is supporting Starfish Prime – a high altitude nuclear detonation to test the effects of a phenomena identified as EMP, Electromagnetic Pulse.  The phenomena s not unexpected as it was noticed in conventional high explosives, but tests in the late 1950s that involved high altitude, endo-atmospheric tests had witnessed an unusual number of test equipment failures due to overvoltage effects.  The launch tonight, with zero-hour scheduled for 0900Z/2300L Hawaii time, is targeted for an altitude of 248 miles, the very upper limits of the atmosphere.  The mission is not without hazard as an earlier attempt on 20 June suffered an engine failure on launch and was command destroyed – on the pad.  While the warhead didn’t detonate, the subsequent scattering of plutonium almost forced the shutdown of the Johnston facility. But the launch tonight worked and at zero-hour, the skies over Oahu, 800 nm away, became bright as day and in the south, a large, white orb slowly rose out of the ocean while in the high atmosphere, the night glowed, bathed in the light of the man-made aurora:

Starfish_Prime_Oahusfish2

More importantly, on the island of Oahu, the electromagnetic pulse created by the explosion was felt as three hundred street lights failed, television sets and radios malfunctioned and burglar alarms were triggered.  On Kauai, the EMP shut down telephone calls to the other islands by burning out the equipment used in a microwave link. Over the next few days, seven  satellites that transited the radiation belts that were created in low earth orbit subsequently failed.  Among these were the (then) new and first of its kind, commercial relay satellite, Telstar.  Eventually one-third of the satellites in low earth orbit failed or were substantially degraded.

But that wasn’t the worst of it.  The Soviets conducted their own test whose effects were devastating.  At the height of the Cuban Missile crisis, a demonstration of the ABM system was conducted wherein a 300kt device was detonated at a 290-km altitude near Dzhezkazgan. Prompt gamma ray-produced EMP induced a current of 2,500 amps in a 570-km stretch of overhead telephone lines to Zharyq, blowing all the protective fuses. The late-time MHD-EMP was of low enough frequency to enable it to penetrate up to 90 cm into the ground, overloading a shallow buried lead and steel tape-protected 1,000-km long power cable between Aqmola and Almaty, firing circuit breakers and setting the Karaganda power plant on fire (Glasstone).  The atmospheric tests ceased soon thereafter, but not the research or planning on EMP effects.  Indeed, as we moved into the 1970s and 80’s, and serious talk of nuclear warfighting was underway on both sides of the iron curtain, we worked to test and harden our weapons and platforms to EMP:

A B-52 bomber sits atop the TRESTLE electromagnetic pulse (EMP)  simulator at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico  The facility is the largest wood-and-glue laminated structure in the world. Aircraft tested here are subjected to up to 10 million volts of electricity to simulate the effects of a nuclear explosion and assess the "hardness" of electrical and electronic equipment to the EMP pulse generated by a nuclear burst.  Credit: U.S. Air Force (courtesy Natural Resource Defense Council)
A B-52 bomber sits atop the TRESTLE electromagnetic pulse (EMP) simulator at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico The facility is the largest wood-and-glue laminated structure in the world. Aircraft tested here are subjected to up to 10 million volts of electricity to simulate the effects of a nuclear explosion and assess the “hardness” of electrical and electronic equipment to the EMP pulse generated by a nuclear burst. Credit: U.S. Air Force (courtesy Natural Resource Defense Council)
A right front view of an E-4 advanced airborne command post (AABNCP) on the electromagnetic pulse (EMP) simulator for the testing.
A right front view of an E-4 advanced airborne command post (AABNCP) on the electromagnetic pulse (EMP) simulator for the testing.

But the Cold War is over, we’re engaged in the prelude for a new round of nuclear reduction talks with Russia so the threat must be diminishing and there is nothing to fear…right?

… right?

(to be continued)

7 Comments

  1. Bob Melley

    As Comm Officer, I was the General Quarters OOD on the “old” USS John S. McCain (DL-3) for a number of the tests at Johnson Atoll. We were an open bridge DL and the tests were done late at night…..”This is April Weather calling…..” The big exo-atmospheric blast referred to as giving the EMP treatment to Honolulu was 100 miles up, directly above the atoll and McCain.
    The colors of the rainbow all slowly appeared and covered the sky and you could read a newspaper on the bridge of our ship…..I remember our CO saying….”WE should not be fooling around with these things….” everyone on the bridge agreed….I still remember it vividly.

    • Wife of Bruce Baker

      (I did not leave my original comment using the correct link – I apologize for the duplicate comment.)

      To Bob Melley (comment dated 8/19/2009) – my husband, Bruce Baker, was on the “old” John S. McCain with you. He served in the OC Division with you. When I read your comment I ran upstairs and got the book of his that I found that documents that cruise. Not sure what it should be called but it is similar to a “year book” for people who have served. I was thrilled to find you were on that cruise with my husband! Bruce passed away just a few months ago – cancer. I will be coming back to this site to check for comments. It is interesting to read the impressions of others who were on the same cruise he was. You all have my respect and admiration.

  2. Andy (JADAA)

    While MILSPEC may be much maligned, it does have EMP hardening standards. The elephant in the room is the civil infrastructure. No one wants to talk about it because it’s going to cost a fortune to harden the grid and every associated system. Add to that the fact that there doesn’t seem to be any settled scientific agreement as to the effects of either nuclear or non-nuclear generated EMP. The potential for effects over a far greater range than an adversary anticipates is, I think, enormous.

    VR,
    Andy

  3. theBuckWheat

    As we move towards upgrading our power grid to be “smart”, it would also be a great time to make it more resilient to EMP.

    I would point out that EMP is only going to zap some, but not all parts of the infrastructure. The fact is that nobody can predict just what devices will fail and which will not. For this reason, an EMP attack makes a poor military weapon, it may or may not be a good economic one. But since we are busy spreading the borrowed wealth around, to coin a phrase, it seems to me that it would be a far better use of the money to spend it on EMP resilience than on skateboard parks, or some of the other silly porkulous projects of late.

  4. Patrick

    I worked at the trestle from 79 to 86. There were also other EMP simultors at Kirtland that I worked at. The pulse simulator is 6MV Pulser 3MV- / 3MV +. We tested everything from A-7 to AF1, even the presidential limo and Marine 1. It was a wonderful time but then computer modeling came into play and most of the experiments could be modeled. The other facilities at Kirtland were VPD-1, VPD 2, HPD, ARES and ALECs.

    It was originally all wood with pressurized would laminate bolts but were eventually changed to the more maintainable fiberglass. Also large vertical metal rings inserted to protect against shearing. It took over 1 year to tighten, replace and maintain the bolts. Every Year!

  5. Wife of Bruce Baker

    To Bob Melley (comment dated 8/19/2009) – my husband, Bruce Baker, was on the “old” John S. McCain with you. He served in the OC Division with you. When I read your comment I ran upstairs and got the book of his that I found that documents that cruise. Not sure what it should be called but it is similar to a “year book” for people who have served. I was thrilled to find you were on that cruise with my husband! Bruce passed away just a few months ago – cancer. I will be coming back to this site to check for comments. It is interesting to read the impressions of others who were on the same cruise he was. You all have my respect and admiration.

Comments are closed.