Star Wars’ newest episode “The Last Jedi” is hitting screens nationwide this week, but less entertaining is this season’s latest space weaponry and commercial drone deployments that increasingly threaten America’s national security.
Kim Jong Un may be planning to use his nuclear and missile technology not to land an explosion on U.S. soil, but to blast it in space. Such an explosion would trigger a high-altitude electromagnetic pulse (HEMP) that could cripple satellites and blind any nation that relies on orbiting communications for everything from airline navigation to financial transactions.
A HEMP strike would bring about a “doomsday scenario” and an act of war that kills no one directly but plunges everyone into the first stages of a technological dark age. An October 2017 congressional hearing on this threat brought testimony that a North Korean HEMP attack could “shut down the U.S. electric power grid for an indefinite period, leading to the death within a year of 90 percent of all Americans.”
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Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has been ringing this alarm bell for years, but despite HEMP hawks’ fears and warnings, the current Republican-led Congress decided to shutter the 16-year old Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse.
If the HEMP threat sounds like a worst-case and extreme act, the Pentagon thinks and prepares for such acts. It’s why the military has a cyber command and does scenario planning that lays out battle plans and retaliatory strikes for a state-launched HEMP attack. The just signed record $700 billion military budget is also meant to build defenses against any North Korean plans to launch and land a nuke both above or on America.
Militaries need to plan for the unthinkable, but some experts believe a commonly feared HEMP attack would likely be a dud, more science fiction than serious threat. Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear weapons expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, told NPR that while an ICBM nuclear attack on the American homeland is a real threat, a HEMP attack would unlikely do more than flicker a few street lights.
New battle strategies, missiles, and drone technologies are in place to fry everything from America’s electrical grid to spy on critical infrastructure. North Korea’s nuclear-tipped ICBMs can now be pointed at American allies and territory, while China’s best-selling consumer drones are flying off the shelf and swooping around the country, suspected to be stealthily sending their flight patterns and photos of critical infrastructure to a foreign adversary.
As the holidays approach, some of these drones will be bought, assembled, and deployed by American hobbyists innocently flying their new toys, potentially capturing sensitive data for foreign nations. Darth Vader’s light saber is child’s play compared to today’s spy and fry tech.
Elsewhere in the world, low-tech snapshots are still illegal. Foreign travel lands American tourists at airports, train stations, near military bases and power plants where photography remains strictly forbidden. Arrests are still made in some countries where taking photos near sensitive areas can land sightseers in jail. In an irony-free UAE, an elderly American was arrested for taking a picture of a “No Photography” sign.
Cyberspace, however, has no borders or police, so foreign-manufactured drones flying freely in American airspace, constantly gather and upload images stamped with both time and space data. Foreign-coded computer software and foreign-made hardware supplement the information gathering by collecting America’s personal and private digitized insights.
Together, they are processed into big data crunching, artificial intelligence machines spitting out real-time physical and psychological mapping of the world, from street level views of cities to what’s coursing underground through the veins of America’s fiber optic cables. Topography, geography, habitual behavior, predictable movement, traffic patterns, financial transactions, commuter density. It’s all there. A skilled marketer and internet behemoth can use the information to manage and manipulate consumer behavior. A determined adversary can easily target and weaponize that same data.
Preventing the collection and exploitation of that valuable info should be a national priority, even if foreign hacks and popular indifference have already allowed foreign countries to tap into a rich trove of Americans’ private data and state secrets. U.S. government agencies have taken some action, banning the use of Russia’s Kaspersky Lab anti-virus software and grounding Chinese-made DJI drones for some official use, even though Kaspersky and DJI deny they engage in spying.
At a time when President Trump tweets that America’s own law enforcement and intelligence agencies are “in Tatters – worst in History!”, America’s adversaries are stocking their information gathering equipment on American Christmas store shelves and seeking intelligence advantages in a data giveaway underwritten and executed by holiday shoppers, municipalities, and the federal government.
“The Last Jedi” is an expansively dramatic battle between good and evil. In the real world, however, the stage and theater of war being prepared is not the local cinema or a galaxy far, far away. It is the land, sea, sky and cyberspace that envelop America. May the force be with her.
Markos Kounalakis is a senior fellow at Central European University and visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @KounalakisM.