The mention of an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack in the presidential GOP debate hosted by The Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute has ignited controversy. After a New York Times article called this threat “theoretical,” Frank Gaffney, director of the Center for Security Policy, offered yet another contribution to the EMP discussion, defending candidate Newt Gingrich’s statement that an EMP attack could be one of the biggest threats the United States faces.
An EMP is a high-intensity burst of electromagnetic energy caused by the rapid acceleration of charged particles. EMPs are created by nuclear or non-nuclear weapons (radio-frequency weapons) detonations or geomagnetic storms (often called space weather). Results of an EMP can be devastating: a single nuclear weapon detonated at a high altitude would instantly send the United States back to the 19th century. An EMP would burn circuits and immobilize electronic components and systems. It addition, the EMP would flow through electricity transmission lines and would damage distribution centers and power lines. Millions could die, as basic elements necessary to sustain life in dense urban and suburban communities would not be available.
The congressionally mandated Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from EMP Attack concluded that the United States was extremely vulnerable to a catastrophic EMP attack, finding “[o]ur increasing dependence on advanced electronics systems results in the potential for an increased EMP vulnerability of our technologically advanced forces, and if unaddressed makes EMP employment by an adversary an attractive asymmetric option.” The commission also proposed a five-year plan to remedy this situation, but so far Congress has failed to address EMP vulnerability.
Both short- and long-range nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles can deliver a devastating attack. Fortunately, the United States can develop the means to better protect and defend itself. A robust missile defense system composed of Aegis ballistic missile capable ships; Aegis Ashore, the land-based ballistic missile component; and Unmanned Aerial Vehicle capabilities would offer a degree of protection against such an attack. Unfortunately, the Obama Administration has curtailed U.S. missile defense development and killed some of the most promising missile defense programs.
Both the public and private sectors should harden vital infrastructure to make it more resilient and resistant to the EMP—to prepare for space weather or a deliberate attack. In addition, the U.S. should develop a national plan to respond to EMP emergencies. This would involve educating federal, state, and local officials along with the public about the risks and response options. The time to act is now.