An electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack—produced by a nuclear weapon detonated at a high altitude or by a geomagnetic storm—has the potential to decimate America’s electrical and technological infrastructure, effectively sending the U.S. back to back to the 19th Century—to a world without cars, cell phones, computers or any other electronics. EMP is not just a threat to cell phones and other electronic gadgets but to all critical electrical infrastructures that the American people and U.S. armed forces depend upon.
Indeed, the congressionally mandated Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse Attack found that a “high-altitude nuclear weapon-generated electromagnetic pulse (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 found that several potential adversaries have or can acquire the capability to attack the United States with a high-altitude nuclear weapon-generated EMP—and the missile wouldn’t have to be launched from 3,000 miles away.
Indeed, the missile could be launched from a freighter in international waters right off the East or West Coast using short-range missiles—the so-called “scud-in-a-bucket” scenario. Scud missiles are shorter-range weapons, originally manufactured and proliferated worldwide by the Soviets. Today, over 28 countries posses these missiles and several countries make their own versions, making the source harder to identify. Indeed, Iran has conducted tests in the Caspian Sea to determine whether its ballistic missiles could be detonated at a high altitude by remote control while still in flight. The purpose of this is to simulate an EMP attack. But Iran is not the only potential threat.
The EMP Commission ominously warned “China and Russia have considered limited nuclear attack options that, unlike their Cold War plans, employ EMP as the primary or sole means of attack.” This should come as no surprise as Russian, Chinese, and Iranian military writings abound with references to EMP strikes against the United States. The Commission concluded that the current vulnerability of U.S. critical infrastructures can both invite and reward attack if not corrected.
The EMP Commission’s report represents the consensus view of the defense and intelligence communities as well as the nuclear weapon labs. Moreover, the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States independently re-examined the EMP threat and concurred with the assessment and recommendations of the EMP Commission. In all, five commissions and major independent U.S. government studies have independently concurred with the EMP Commission’s threat assessment and recommendations.
Despite this broad consensus, Congress has yet to act in a substantive manner. For the most part, U.S. government agencies have not taken planning for their response to an EMP attack out of the theoretical stages. For the past several years, The Heritage Foundation has been working to raise awareness on the electromagnetic pulse threat and seek solutions to correcting this vulnerability by calling for a national EMP recognition day. This year’s event will coincide with the anniversary of the 2003 East Coast blackout, the results of which were just a small example of the devastation that could occur from an EMP attack on the United States.
To learn more, join us at Heritage on August 15 for a keynote panel discussion on “National EMP Recognition Day: The Threat that Can’t be Ignored.”
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