The Pentagon Is Building a $44-Million EMP Bunker in Alaska
The military wants to protect its missile defenses against electromagnetic pulses
Fort Greely, Alaska is home to one of America’s two domestic missile defense bases. Now it’s getting armored against high-altitude electromagnetic energy attacks—like the kind emitted from nuclear blasts.
It’s a far-fetched scenario, but the Pentagon is spending millions on a bunker designed to protect against exactly that. According to contract documents from the Army Corps of Engineers, the military plans to spend $44 million on an “HEMP-protected” bunker housing the base’s missile launch control systems.
By HEMP, the contract is referring to high-altitude electromagnetic pulses. The base at Fort Greely houses anti-ballistic missile interceptors stored in silos, and can also control and direct interceptors fired from a similar site at Vandenberg Air Force base in California.
It’s worth noting the money is pocket change compared to the $41 billion the Pentagon is spending on its ground-based mid-course defense program through 2017. The plan calls for installing dozens of missile interceptors in Alaska and California.
These interceptors carry kinetic kill vehicles designed to impact and destroy ballistic missiles during their mid-course phase. Mid-course defense refers to the flight pattern of ballistic missiles as they travel through space—and before they reenter the atmosphere traveling at extremely high speeds.
But a missile defense site wouldn’t count for much if it could be knocked out by EMP—essentially waves of highly-charged energy that can override electronic circuits.
Missile defense boosters in Congress have for years warned about the threat of a rogue state exploding a nuke high above North America, unleashing waves of energy that fry critical infrastructure, electronics and collectively throwing us back into the 19th century.
The science behind the doomiest EMP scenarios isn’t well supported. A 2010 study in The Space Review by nuclear physicist Yousaf Butt sketched out a worst-case scenario of an EMP attack. Turns out, it would likely disrupt communications—in the most dire case—in only a single state-sized area.
That would be costly, but there’s also a conceptual problem with the idea. If you’re a mad dictator with a single nuke and need to cause the greatest amount of destruction you can with it, you may as well just nuke a city.
You’re bringing on massive retaliation in either case.
Still, the damage “may still be sufficient to disrupt and/or destroy the electronic controls of the power-delivery systems, as well as computers, Blackberrys, cell phones, etc., located within or close to the peak-field region,” Butt wrote.
The Pentagon is concerned enough with that scenario to protect its missile defense site. “The EMP- and blast-proof building design also will provide a blueprint for subsequent launch-control buildings at Fort Greely,” reported the trade journal Military and Aerospace Electronics.
EMP-shielding also protects against lightning strikes, so it’s a good insurance policy to shield the base’s critical launch systems, in any case.
The contract notes that when the military first constructed the silos, the building housing the critical launch components “was not blast protected, HEMP shielded, and did not provide the utility redundancy to support a deployed weapons system.”
By protecting the base from blasts, the Pentagon means the ability “to resist the effects of a surface blast due to the accidental explosion of a missile as it exits a silo.” That means one of the interceptor missiles accidentally blowing up its own base—so it has to be physically hardened in addition to being protected against EMP.
And to ensure no intruders try to gain illicit access, the military wants tight security. “Security measures include intrusion detection, access control, and construction escorts,” the contract noted.
These might read like minor details, but these are critical issues if the military wants to keep its missile defense program alive. And there’s serious doubts the mid-course missile defense system will work in the event of an attack—and not a simulation.
According to an April report from the Government Accountability Office, the latest interceptor used by the system doesn’t work nearly well enough to guarantee it’ll be reliable in a real scenario. The Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency also has to prove it does work before Congress authorizes the military to buy more.
That means more testing.
In the meantime, you can bet the Pentagon is hoping lightning doesn’t strike before the bunker is complete, or that Fort Greely’s interceptors missiles don’t blow themselves up during future tests.