The Boogeyman Bomb

How afraid should we be of electromagnetic pulse weapons?

Image: Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack
Image: Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack

It’s a scene fit for a Hollywood movie: A terrorist group launches a nuclear weapon from a ship off the coast of the United States. But instead of directly hitting a city or military installation, it detonates miles above the ground, seemingly causing no damage. Almost instantaneously, the lights darken over a large portion of the United States, cars stop in the middle of the road, and computers go dead. Panic ensues and the nation is soon economically and militarily crippled, sent back to the pre-modern era.

This is the catastrophic scenario depicted in the opening scene of a 1980s-style public service announcement released last year by EMPACT America, a nonprofit organization dedicated to "protecting the American People from a nuclear or natural electromagnetic pulse (EMP) catastrophe."

First observed in a 1962 high-altitude nuclear weapons test over the South Pacific, EMP is an intense burst of electromagnetic radiation resulting from a large explosion that can potentially wipe out all unprotected electronics. During the Cold War, strategists worried about EMP primarily as part of a larger nuclear scenario: Military hardware needed to be hardened against the pulses’ effects to be able to survive a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union.

In recent years, however, and particularly after 9/11, EMP has emerged as the latest fear factor-type threat among Washington’s doomsday crowd. "A single EMP attack may seriously degrade or shut down a large part of the electric power grid in the geographic area of EMP exposure effectively instantaneously," the congressionally mandated EMP commission concluded in its 2008 report. In recent months, EMP fears have resurfaced as Iran hawks like Newt Gingrich and Daniel Pipes have suggested that the Islamic Republic could use an EMP against the United States.

There have been any number of dire scenarios — of varying degrees of probability — that have caught Washington’s attention over the years: The threat of nuclear Armageddon drove U.S. policy during the Cold War; "Y2K" led to a national campaign to fix computer bugs; and the threat of terrorist attacks post-9/11 has led to two wars and billions in new spending for intelligence and counterterrorism efforts. Cybersecurity and the concept of a "digital Pearl Harbor" are now gaining traction, with the director of national intelligence warning that cyberattacks could "wreak havoc" on the United States.

One of the most outspoken prophets of EMP doom has been physicist Lowell Wood, the brain behind such Reagan-era Star Wars weapons as Project Excalibur, the plan to create a hydrogen-bomb-pumped X-ray laser to shoot down enemy missiles; and Brilliant Pebbles, the concept of deploying thousands of anti-missile satellites in orbit over the United States. Wood famously called EMP "a continental-scale time machine" in a 1999 hearing to discuss the threat.

"We essentially pick up the continent and move it back in time by about one century," Wood warned. "And you live like our grandfather[s] and great-grandfathers and so on did in the 1890s, until you rebuild. You do without telephones, you do without television, and you do without electric power."

The EMP threat has, so far, not sent Middle America scrambling to the store to stock up on aluminum foil, a potential home defense against the pulses’ electronic-frying effect. (Though in this case, the stereotypical conspiracy theorists in tinfoil hats might actually have the right idea.)

But unlike some of the other national security threats on the horizon, the "e-bomb" has emerged as a partisan issue, with a core group of conservative supporters. Gingrich has been among the most outspoken. On Capitol Hill, Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.) has been one of the most ardent supporters of those pushing for an EMP defense, establishing the investigatory commission, and warning of a catastrophe "on a scale far greater than Hurricane Katrina."

Despite EMPACT’s claims of nonpartisanship, liberals have largely dismissed the idea as conservative fear-mongering. EMPs were even derisively labeled "the Newt Bomb" by New Republic senior editor Michael Crowley.

The real debate is not so much over whether EMP is a real phenomenon — even critics of the commission’s findings agree it exists —  but how much of a threat it poses to the nation’s infrastructure, how likely it is that a group or country might build and use such a weapon, and what should be done about it.

Philip Coyle, a former top Pentagon official and current nominee for associate director of national security for the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, has in the past criticized some of the EMP defense advocates for exaggerating the capabilities of a potential EMP attack. "The commission deliberately wrote their report the way they did because they wanted to call attention to it; they didn’t want it just to get buried and lost," Coyle told me in an interview in 2005. "So, some of this inflammatory language they use about the ‘end of life as we know it,’ this rhetoric, was to try to get people’s interest and attention."

There has long been debate about just how devastating an EMP weapon would be on the United States. After reviewing the possible effects of EMP and comparing it to natural lightning, Mario Rabinowitz of the Electric Power Research Institute wrote back in 1987 that an EMP burst could never take out the entire U.S. power grid. "It would be practically impossible for the EMP to cause widespread damage to the U.S. transmission line system," he concluded. "With the exception of isolated cases, it appears highly unlikely that EMP could produce extensive damage to the U.S. distribution grid."

For critics of the EMP threat, the problems with the e-bomb are both practical and technical. If a country has the capability to launch a nuclear bomb that could wreak immediate massive devastation, why settle for something that would merely shut the lights out? The argument, according to EMP-defense advocates, is that terrorists or rogue states might prefer to attack with an EMP weapon because it hits at the United States’s most vulnerable point — its infrastructure — while reducing the threat of nuclear retaliation. "EMPs could be used to circumvent America’s superior con­ventional military power while reducing vulnerabil­ity to retaliation in kind," Jena Baker McNeill and Richard Weitz argued in a Heritage Foundation paper.

Similarly, as in the case of EMPACT’s scenario, rogue states might choose to provide an EMP weapon to a terrorist group, thus making attribution all the more difficult, if not impossible.

Therein lies part of the problem. Yousaf Butt, a staff scientist in the High Energy Astrophysics Division at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, argued persuasively in a recent article for The Space Review that under this scenario — an attack from a rogue state or terrorist group — it is unlikely that an EMP weapon could wreak total havoc. (Ironically, Butt has some common ground with those arguing for EMP defenses; he agrees that geomagnetic storms pose a similar threat and is in favor of hardening the grid to protect against them.)

If the primary threat is from a crudely constructed EMP weapon launched from a Scud-type missile, that sort of weapon wouldn’t have nearly the capabilities needed to take out U.S. infrastructure, he argues. Butt estimates that such a device, with a one-kiloton yield, would have to be launched much lower in the atmosphere, and thus would have more localized effects. "Serious long-lasting consequences of a one-kiloton EMP strike would likely be limited to a state-sized region of the country," he writes.

True, an EMP that affected even a single state would be, no doubt, traumatic and disruptive, but it would also be recoverable, and more importantly, fall far short of a "continental-scale time machine."

In the end, advocates for EMP preparation could end up being their own worst enemy. The unlikely scenarios they peddle lend themselves to caricature. And though there are certainly some intellectual heavyweights among those who have warned about the effects of EMP — like Johnny Foster, the former head of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory — critics have derided EMP defense supporters for relying on the likes of science fiction writer William R. Forstchen to help bolster their case.

By talking about "time machines" and turning the EMP bomb into something that goes bump in the night, those advocating for better defenses risk pushing the issue further into the margins of science fiction.

 Twitter: @weinbergersa