The power failures plunged more than 600 million people into darkness, making it the world’s largest power failure event and affecting more than twice the total population of the United States. They caused widespread disruption, including the stranding of workers in underground mines, the disruption of medical care, and massive disruption to citizens’ commutes. They also marked a large political liability for the Indian government.
However, each of the two blackouts lasted for no longer than a single day. The effects of an EMP attack, on the other hand, would be permanent in almost all cases—given that the waves of particles are likely to completely destroy the electronic components they reach.
An EMP is “a high-intensity burst of electromagnetic energy caused by the rapid acceleration of charged particles.” An EMP can be generated artificially through the detonation of a nuclear device at certain altitudes.
The extent of the damage from the particle blast would depend on the altitude of the detonation and the size of the nuclear device. The disruption witnessed in India serves as only a hint of the devastation that would be wrought by an EMP attack.
The task of considering the effects of an EMP attack in the current modern age—with its dependency on technology and need for reliable sources of energy—is no longer confined to the world of academic speculation. In addition to the disruption in India, massive blackouts in America’s past serve as important warnings about the dangers of an EMP.
The deployment of a robust missile defense system—comprised primarily of Aegis ballistic missile defense capable ships, Aegis Ashore (a land-based missile defense component), and Unmanned Aerial Vehicle capabilities—represents the best strategy for addressing the EMP threat caused by a nuclear or an EMP device detonated at a high altitude. In preparation for a possible EMP strike, the U.S. should pursue efforts to enhance the resiliency of critical infrastructure and the electrical grid, reinforce disaster response plans, and develop plans for ways to communicate following an attack.
As a matter of national security, the U.S. should sufficiently prepare and do so as soon as possible.
Bryan DeWinter is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit: http://www.heritage.org/about/departments/ylp.cfm