In recent weeks, I have attended two lectures that discussed what could be the greatest existential threat to the U.S: EMP, or electromagnetic pulse, attacks. Although an EMP attack would utilize conventional nuclear weapons, it is an infrequently discussed aspect of our nuclear policy, and one for which we are woefully unprepared. Furthermore, the potential effects highlight the gravity and immediacy of the rogue nuclear threat.
The way an EMP attack would work is as follows. An attacker would launch a nuclear weapon into orbit. However, rather than hitting American territory and obliterating a city with scorching flames, the weapon would detonate above the Earth’s atmosphere. Instead of seeing a mushroom cloud upon impact, we would simply be left in the dark. Almost all forms of electricity, including cell phones and other battery-operated devices, would cease to work; airplanes would literally rain from the sky.
Unlike past blackouts, such as the one that occurred in the summer of 2003 and left much of the northeastern U.S. without electricity, the lights would not come back on for years potentially. The U.S. would be plunged into a primitive state in which people scrounged for food and water to survive. Money would be worthless, our economy would revert to bartering, and one’s most valuable assets would be guns and ammunition.
So, how likely or plausible is this sort of attack? More so than we would like. In 2004, the Electromagnetic Pulse Commission, which Congress established, issued a Report of the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack.” It concluded that “EMP is one of a small number of threats that has the potential to hold our society seriously at risk and might result in defeat of our military forces.” The Commission issued another report in 2008 in which it concluded that “The electromagnetic pulse generated by a high altitude nuclear explosion is one of a small number of threats that can hold our society at risk of catastrophic consequences.”
On May 6, the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States also issued a report in which it addressed EMP, saying, “We note also that the United States has done little to reduce its vulnerability to attack with electromagnetic pulse weapons and recommend that current investments in modernizing the national power grid take account of this risk.” The report also stated that “Prior commissions have investigated U.S. vulnerabilities and found little activity under way to address them,” and “EMP vulnerabilities have not yet been addressed effectively by the Department of Homeland Security. Doing so could take several years.”
The 2008 Commission report recommended that “The Department of Homeland Security should add content to Web sites it maintains, such as www.Ready.gov.” It appears, however, that the DHS has neglected to do so thus far. Instead, it has included a short description of potential EMP effects in its “Are you ready? An in-depth guide to citizen preparedness” report. In the report, it actually misleads citizens into thinking that EMP is virtually harmless, saying that “Although an EMP is unlikely to harm most people, it could harm those with pacemakers or other implanted electronic devices.”
If all of this is not enough to wake up members of Congress and a seemingly unaware public, then recent activity by American adversaries should. The Wall Street Journal reported in April that Russia, China, and other countries have “penetrated the U.S. electrical grid and left behind software programs that could be used to disrupt the system.”
Furthermore, Iran and North Korea recently conducted long-range missile tests, and North Korea may launch another missile soon in the direction of Hawaii. Military experts also believe that Iran is specifically simulating an EMP strike, and an Iranian military journalist recently said that “If the world’s industrial countries fail to devise effective ways to defend themselves against dangerous electronic assaults then they will disintegrate within a few years.”
All of this highlights the poor timing of Defense Secretary, Robert Gates’ proposed $1.4 billion cut in missile defense spending. And while our government has done little to address the EMP threat to date, it is, by most accounts, something that we have the resources for which to prepare. While it would cost several billion dollars to achieve preparedness for an EMP attack, it would likely cost less than what the U.S. government has already wasted on General Motors and Chrysler. It requires, however, a public that is aware and which demands action from Congress and the administration. The time for that action is now.