July 28, 2009 | Commentary on National Security and Defense, Homeland Security

Electromagnetic Attack: Thinking the Unthinkable

When the 9/11 Commission issued its report, it complained that federal agencies had a colossal "failure of imagination." Nobody could accuse Newt Gingrich of suffering from that shortfall.

When he delivered a major address on national security last week, the former House speaker went after Defense Secretary Robert Gates for planning for the future the Pentagon wants, rather than dealing with the many serious problems it may actually face. Gingrich mentioned one challenge that many find too terrible to contemplate--which is why our government should spend a lot more time doing exactly that.

I'm referring to the electromagnetic pulse (EMP). This method of attack is usually associated with a nuclear blast. In addition to thermal, radiation, heat and concussive force, an atomic detonation throws off an incredible amount of electromagnetic energy.

Picture a massive tsunami, but with lightning instead of water. And, like the surge produced by lightning, electrical systems act like antennas sucking down a rush of electrons that fry circuits and burn out microchips.

EMP is not normally addressed when talking about nuclear attack because most strikes are planned as low-air bursts where most of the energy, EMP included, goes straight into the ground (and flattens the target in between). In such scenarios, electrical systems would be disabled by EMP, though few would notice because most people would have been crushed or melted in the firestorm following the detonation.

A deliberate EMP attack, however, would be different. If, for example, an enemy detonated a nuclear weapon carried on a ballistic missile 200 miles or so above Earth, people on the ground might never know an attack occurred. But if the explosion happened high enough over North America, the blossom of EMP might cover the entire United States.

Last year, a congressional commission studied how a high-altitude EMP strike would affect the nation's infrastructure. The answer was simple: It would be devastating. The entire U.S. electrical grid might be gone and all the instruments of daily life that depend on electrical power useless. Life in the U.S., concluded the 9/11 Commission chair, scientist William Graham, "would be a lot like life in the 1800s," except with a significantly bigger population.

Just keeping modern-day America fed would be virtually impossible without working transportation or communications systems. Water-pumping and sewage-treatment plants would be offline. Modern medical care would be virtually nonexistent. Even if the rest of the world mustered the largest humanitarian mission in human history, the suffering would be unprecedented.

EMP attacks are often thought off of as attacks against the U.S. infrastructure. But the truth is a large-scale one would be an instrument of genocide.

Shockingly, some dismiss the threat out of hand. Michael Crowley, writing in The New Republic, dismissed the "Newt Bomb " as science fiction. That seems a real stretch, especially given the report handed to Congress.

The EMP problem isn't talked about much, yes, but not because responsible people think it's a sci-fi scenario. They don't talk about it because they are so overwhelmed by the challenges such an attack would pose.

Washington, D.C. is truly out to lunch on this one. Both the departments of Defense and Homeland Security place dealing with the threat of catastrophic attack high on their lists of what keeps them up at night. Yet, Homeland Security doesn't include an EMP as one of their disaster-planning scenarios.

As for the Pentagon, Gates just cut 10 percent of the missile-defense budget--the best weapons we have to prevent EMP attacks. Congress is equally in la-la land. Having commissioned the EMP report and accepted its findings, last week the Senate joined the House in rubber-stamping Gates' missile-defense cuts.

The idea that someone would attack the U.S. with jet airliners once seemed unthinkable. An EMP attack may today seem just as remote. But it's time to play it safe--and start figuring out how to deal with it.

James Jay Carafano is Senior Research Fellow in national security policy at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow

First Appeared in the San Fransisco Examiner