The EMP Threat: Just a Scare?

Jordan Harms /


A recent National Journal article discussed the likelihood of an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) over the United States with skepticism, asking whether such activists and politicians are “[d]oomsday preppers or congressional visionaries” and claiming that the “the debate over the urgency remains stuck in a theoretical realm.”

But the EMP threat is anything but theoretical.

An EMP is a high-intensity burst of electromagnetic energy caused by the rapid acceleration of charged particles. Such a burst can come from either a nuclear weapon detonated at a low altitude or a natural solar flare. An EMP caused by terrorists or a rogue state could knock out electrical grids, causing financial and computer systems to grind to a halt and seriously jeopardizing U.S. national security.

The possibility of an EMP attack has been written off in the past as overblown, easily dismissed as the stuff of tinfoil hats. But China’s recent testing of its anti-satellite weapons which included EMP as a capability contradicts the assertion that any capability of adversaries to launch an EMP against the United States is only in the infant stages. Nations like China and North Korea understand that vulnerability to EMP would be as devastating as a nuclear strike.

Representative Trent Franks (R–AZ), a member of the House Armed Services Committee and chairman of the bipartisan Electromagnetic Pulse Caucus, has been working to draw attention to the danger of such an attack, and in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee this week, the commander of U.S. Cyber Command, General Keith Alexander, stated that addressing the threat from an EMP attack is now his top priority. Even the Department of Homeland Security itself admitted that it is not prepared for an EMP attack.

While the U.S. missile defense system is a vital tool to counteract an EMP, an EMP can also be caused by a cyclical solar flare or solar weather. A powerful solar storm could occur in the next few years, according to scientists at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the National Academy of Sciences. Resilient communications and power grids are important to address this danger.

The nation needs to be aware of the consequences of the EMP. Yet it still remains unprepared for such an attack, and it is vital that the national security policy addresses it.

Jordan Harms is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please click here.