What America Needs to Know About EMPs

The threat of an electromagnetic attack is real, but preparing for one shouldn't be too difficult.

In her article "The Boogeyman Bomb," Sharon Weinberger makes several allegations about the threat of electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapons, and a congressional commission set up to investigate it, that require correction.

By way of background, a nuclear weapon detonated at high altitude will produce an electromagnetic pulse that can damage and destroy electronic systems over vast regions of the Earth’s surface. A single nuclear weapon detonated at an altitude of 400 kilometers over the United States would project an EMP field over the entire country, as well as parts of Canada and Mexico. Mother Nature can also pose an EMP threat by means of a solar flare that causes a geomagnetic storm.

EMP is not just a threat to computers and electronic gadgets, but to all the critical infrastructures that depend on electronics and electricity — communications, transportation, banking and finance, food and water — and that sustain modern civilization and the lives of the American people.

In 2008, the congressionally mandated Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse Attack delivered its final report to Congress, the Defense Department, and the Department of Homeland Security. The commission concluded that terrorist groups, rogue states, China, and Russia are theoretically capable of launching a catastrophic EMP attack against the United States and either had contingency plans to do so or were actively pursuing the ability. Iran, North Korea, China, and Russia have scientific and military research programs dedicated to or supportive of EMP capability, and their military doctrinal writings explicitly describe EMP attacks against the United States.

Based on eight years of research and analysis, 50 years of data from nuclear tests and EMP simulators, and never-before-attempted EMP tests, the commission found that any nuclear weapon, even a low-yield one, could potentially pose a catastrophic EMP threat to the United States, mainly because of the great fragility of the electric grid. One scenario of particular concern is a nuclear-armed Iran transferring a short- or medium-range nuclear missile to terrorist groups that could perform a ship-launched "anonymous" EMP attack against the United States. Iranian military strategists have written about EMP attacks against the United States, and Iran has successfully practiced launching a ballistic missile off a ship and flight-tested its Shahab-3 medium-range missile to detonate at high altitude, as if practicing an EMP attack.

The commission also noted credible Russian claims that they had developed what the Russians call "super-EMP" weapons — low-yield nuclear weapons specially designed to generate extraordinarily powerful EMP fields — and that the Russian Duma had raised the prospect of a disabling EMP attack against the United States during NATO’s bombing of Serbia in May 1999.

The EMP Commission also, in the first such preview by any official body, warned that a "great" geomagnetic storm could be as catastrophic as a nuclear EMP attack — and that this naturally occurring EMP event is inevitable. Normally, geomagnetic storms occur at high northern latitudes, not over the United States, and usually are not sufficiently powerful to cause catastrophic damage. But every hundred years or so, a "great" geomagnetic storm occurs that could cause catastrophic damage to electronics — and the infrastructures that rely upon them — over much of the Northern Hemisphere. The world has not experienced a great geomagnetic storm since the advent of the electronic age, not since the Carrington event of 1859 — but many scientists think we are overdue. A great geomagnetic storm could generate an EMP covering the United States equivalent to the high-altitude detonation of a very powerful megaton-class nuclear weapon.

Weinberger accuses the EMP Commission of deliberately "exaggerating the capabilities of a potential EMP attack." This is a serious allegation, as deliberately misrepresenting the facts about the EMP threat would constitute an ethical and legal violation. As evidence, Weinberger offers the opinion of Philip Coyle of the Center for Defense Information. Whatever Coyle’s opinion may be, he is no authority on the commission’s work and has participated in none of it. In any case, even he only accuses the EMP Commission of using "inflammatory language" but not of misrepresenting facts.

As a member of the EMP Commission’s staff, I can assure the public that the EMP commissioners adhered to the highest standards of professionalism and scientific objectivity. If the findings of the EMP Commission sound alarming, it is because they are. The EMP commissioners did their duty and followed the data. The EMP Commission’s threat assessment and recommendations represent the best work so far produced by the United States on EMP and is the best-informed basis for national security policy.

The EMP Commission’s conclusions were also backed up by the findings of another congressional commission, this one chaired by former Defense Secretary William Perry. Their 2009 report independently concluded that terrorists, rogue states, China, and Russia could pose an EMP threat to the United States and advocated immediate implementation of the EMP Commission’s recommendations. The National Academy of Sciences has also urged implementation of the EMP Commission’s recommendations.

Are all of these commissions and blue-ribbon scientific studies a conspiracy to "hype" the EMP threat?

Weinberger correctly observes that there "has long been debate about just how devastating an EMP weapon would be on the United States." This is exactly why Congress established the EMP Commission, after five years of congressional hearings on EMP that produced no consensus about the threat. There will always be individuals who disagree with any commission’s findings — no matter that the methodology, research, and analysis are excellent — just as there are those who disagree with the 9/11 Commission, the weapons-of-mass-destruction commission, the Warren Commission, or any other commission.

Weinberger alleges that the EMP Commission and concern about the EMP threat is strictly partisan. But the EMP Commission’s bipartisan credentials are impeccable. It was established by a Republican-dominated Congress in 2001 and re-established by a Democrat-dominated Congress in 2006. Commissioners were appointed on a bipartisan basis. The EMP threat, and the necessity to do something about it, is one of the few issues on which Democrats and Republicans in Congress are working together.

Weinberger asks why nuclear terrorists or rogue states would prefer to use a nuclear weapon for an EMP attack, instead of blasting a city. The short answer is that an EMP attack could inflict more and longer-lasting damage and kill many more Americans in the long run. Blasting a city cannot paralyze the United States and will leave forensic and other evidence that will virtually guarantee the destruction of the perpetrator. An EMP attack is the only option for a single nuclear weapon that offers terrorists or rogue states any realistic chance of defeating the United States, perhaps eliminating the United States as an actor from the world stage, permanently.

As to Weinberger’s complaints that Newt Gingrich and others concerned about the EMP threat sometimes recommend to popular audiences the novel One Second After, which describes a hypothetical EMP attack on the United States: Since Uncle Toms Cabin there has been a venerable tradition in U.S. democracy of educating and building popular support for causes through novels. Her disgust would be more credible if she criticized with equal vigor the many novels and movies designed to raise popular concern about climate change.

Weinberger cites New Republic senior editor Michael Crowley as an example of a critic of the EMP Commission. Crowley is indeed a typical critic of the EMP Commission — he knows nothing about EMP and obviously never bothered to read the EMP Commission’s reports. Crowley alleges in his article "The Newt Bomb" that the EMP Commission is really a conspiracy to promote national missile defense and preventive war against Iran. Both claims are untrue, as is evident from the EMP Commission’s recommendations, which focus on passive defense of critical infrastructures.

Far from "hyping" the EMP threat, in its reports and public testimony, the commission went to great lengths to emphasize that there is no excuse for the United States to be vulnerable to nuclear or natural EMP and that the country can protect itself with a little effort and very modest investment. Most of our recommendations are common-sense solutions — good planning, training, selective hardening — that have universal applicability against other threats, including cyberwarfare, sabotage, and natural disasters. According to one estimate, the worst consequences of an EMP event could be avoided for as little as $100 million, by selectively protecting key transformers in the electric grid. Unlike other weapon-of-mass-destruction threats, which apparently will always be with us, the EMP Commission offered a way to put the EMP threat out of business.

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