During last Tuesday’s Heritage Foundation/AEI debate on national security, the GOP candidates were queried on what lesser-known dangers to American security most concerned them.
One particularly visceral threat is nuclear fissile material falling into the hands of non-state belligerents. The American public, however, is acutely aware of such a threat. The notion of a “dirty bomb” attack has been pounded into the nation’s collective consciousness by pop-culture hits such as the Fox television drama 24. What is less known, but equally disconcerting, is the danger posed by an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack.
An electromagnetic pulse results from the sudden burst of electromagnetic radiation emanating from the detonation of a nuclear weapon. An EMP can also result from natural phenomena, such as a geomagnetic solar storm; however, our nation’s national security apparatus should be prepared to deal with the consequences of an enemy EMP attack.
If a nuclear weapon were to be detonated hundreds of miles into the atmosphere above the continental United States, the resulting electromagnetic pulse could destroy the nation’s electric grid and render impotent all elements of society that rely on electricity. In short order, many aspects of American society would be thrust into the early 19th century.
In 2004, the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse Attack reported:
Several potential adversaries have or can acquire the capability to attack the United States with a high-altitude nuclear weapon-generated electromagnetic pulse (EMP). A determined adversary can achieve an EMP attack capability without having a high level of sophistication. EMP is one of a small number of threats that can hold our society at risk of catastrophic consequences. EMP will cover the wide geographic region within line of sight to the nuclear weapon. It has the capability to produce significant damage to critical infrastructures and thus to the very fabric of US society, as well as to the ability of the United States and Western nations to project influence and military power.
Given the dangers posed by EMP, how can the United States protect itself from such an attack? The answer rests in the pursuit of a comprehensive and layered missile defense system.
In a recent Heritage Foundation WebMemo, Baker Spring and Michaela Bendikova outline a number of steps that the Obama Administration can take to update and strengthen our missile defense capabilities. The suggestions include the expansion of Aegis-equipped vessels within the U.S. Navy’s arsenal.
The Aegis system is currently capable of intercepting ballistic missiles of short and intermediate range; however, the Obama Administration could pursue deployment of Standard Missile-3 interceptors capable of countering long-range ballistic missile threats.
The Obama Administration currently plans to deploy such interceptors as far out as 2020, but the threats facing our nation demand more immediate action. An EMP attack could be executed from within a vessel surreptitiously operating off the coast of the United States or from distances far beyond American soil. America’s missile defense capabilities should be prepared for any and all contingencies.
Spring and Bendikova further advocate for a more comprehensive system of land- and air-based detection and tracking capabilities, including an increase in ground-based interceptors and the development and deployment of space-based interceptors.
The Heritage Foundation/AEI–sponsored debate brought to light a number of important national security threats that may be faced by our next president. An EMP attack is certainly one of the more disconcerting yet least discussed and understood of such threats. Improving and expanding upon our current missile defense infrastructure is paramount to countering the dangers posed by an EMP attack.