On March 23, 1983, President Ronald Reagan gave a famous speech where he outlined his plans for the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), aimed at protecting America from a nuclear missile attack using land- and sea-based missile defense systems. On the anniversary of this famous oratory, however, America faces another threat, one that requires Congress’s immediate attention: an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack.
An EMP attack can begin with the explosion of a nuclear weapon high in the atmosphere. This explosion interacts with the planet’s magnetic fields, creating a pulse, which in turn causes extensive damage to electronic systems. The EMP resulting from the blast would cause widespread damage, devastating the economy and resulting in the deaths of millions of Americans. Despite repeated warnings, Congress has taken virtually no action to prepare or protect against an EMP attack. In order to facilitate a national discussion regarding the EMP threat, Congress should establish March 23 as EMP Recognition Day.
Explored by America’s Adversaries
The likelihood of an EMP attack is disconcerting. Nearly 30 countries currently possess ballistic missile capabilities. Indeed, some have extensive knowledge of EMP and its effects. North Korea currently possesses a large arsenal of missiles and has been publicly testing its ballistic weapons. It has also been reported that Russian scientists have worked with North Korea on developing an EMP weapon. Countries and non-state actors are also exploring improvised or non-nuclear EMPs as a means of harnessing the destructive power of EMP without the need for missile capabilities. EMP has even been seen to occur naturally during a solar flare event (the last of which happened in the late 1800s).
Despite such concerns and repeated warnings from the congressionally mandated EMP Commission, the President’s budget does not place a great enough emphasis on missile defense, let alone the EMP threat. For instance, the President’s Fiscal Year (FY) 2011 budget requested $9.9 billion for missile defense, a $600 million decrease from FY 2009 (although a $900 million increase over FY 2010). Neither Congress nor the White House has looked extensively at hardening critical infrastructure against EMP or revising recovery plans or disaster planning scenarios to be reflective of this unique threat.
Time for an EMP Recognition Day
Given the increased likelihood that the U.S. could suffer an EMP attack in the near future, the time has come for Congress to recognize the danger that EMP poses and act to address this threat. If, just for one day, Congress simulated even a fraction of the impact such an attack would have, the scope of the danger would be clear. To do so, Congress should establish an EMP Recognition Day. For instance, Congress could:
If Congress took these four steps for one day, all Members would understand the magnitude of the dangers posed by an EMP attack. Perhaps doing so would help Congress better understand the need for the following actions:
What the U.S. really needs to address this threat, however, is a version of the SM-3 that would intercept these kinds of missiles in the boost or ascent phase of flight. The Independent Working Group has recommended developing and fielding what it calls an “East Coast Missile Defense” to address this emerging threat.
Accordingly, Congress should require the Navy to demonstrate the capability to produce new versions of the SM-3 interceptor that are capable of destroying a short-range missile in the boost or ascent phase of flight, prior to its reaching the preferred detonation points for an EMP warhead. This would require that Congress also provide the Navy with the funds necessary to undertake this test program. Congress could also direct the Air Force to undertake a companion program that would permit operational use of the Airborne Laser system to defend against an attack from a short-range missile.
The Time Is Now
March 23 should be designated as EMP Recognition Day on the Hill. The anniversary of President Reagan’s SDI speech can serve as a reminder of the need to take such threats seriously and counter them with robust preparedness and recovery efforts, quality research, and a comprehensive missile defense system.
Jena Baker McNeill is Policy Analyst for Homeland Security in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation. James Jay Carafano, Ph.D., is Deputy Director of the Davis Institute and Director of the Allison Center at The Heritage Foundation.
Baker Spring, “Electromagnetic Pulse Weapons: Congress Must Understand the Risk,” Heritage Foundation WebMemo No. 2822, March 3, 2010, at http://www.heritage.org/Research/Reports/2010/03/Electromagnetic-Pulse-Weapons-Congress-Must-Understand-the-Risk.