The threat of an Electro-Magnetic Pulse (EMP) attack against the
United States is credible. Such a strike could have a devastating
impact on the nation by disabling electrical systems, grinding the
economy to a halt, and possibly resulting in the deaths of
millions. Yet other than establishing a commission to study the
problem and holding a handful of hearings, Congress has done
virtually nothing to address the issue. Such inaction could change
virtually overnight, however, if Congress held even one EMP
The Darkest Hour
An EMP attack is produced by detonating a nuclear weapon
launched by a ballistic missile. Such a detonation-occurring high
above the earth-produces a massive pulse of ionized particles that
could damage many electrical and information systems. An attack
would disrupt telecommunications, banking and finance, fuel and
energy, food and water supplies, emergency and government services,
and more, threatening millions of lives.
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. Here is a short list of what could happen on EMP Recognition
Day on the Hill. Congress could:
- Close all cafeterias. After an attack transportation networks
would grind to a halt and no food would be delivered.
- Walk to work. Traffic lights would no longer function, so all
roads would be gridlocked. The computer systems operating mass
transit would be inoperative.
- Turn off members' Blackberries. Satellites in low-earth and
many of the communication support systems will be disabled. Devices
such as Blackberries and GPS would not work.
- Shut off the lights. Critical computers that direct the
national electrical grid would be inoperative.
Congress should take just these four steps for one day-and then
all the members would understand the magnitude of the dangers posed
by an EMP attack.
A Day to Remember
In a speech on March 23, 1983, Ronald Reagan detailed his plans
for the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). SDI was aimed at
ensuring America's safety against a nuclear missile attack by
implementing land and space-based defense systems. Reagan's vision
was never completely realized, but the missile threats against the
United States have never dissipated, and the need for such a system
grows more pressing. A little over 20 years later, a
congressionally chartered commission led by Dr. William Graham
released a report that detailed an unappreciated dimension of the
missile problem: an EMP attack. Thus, March 23 would be an
excellent candidate for Congress's EMP Recognition Day.
A Call to Action
EMP Recognition Day would be about more than putting Congress in
the dark. It could promote several tasks the Congress could take
- Fund comprehensive missile defense. Building a comprehensive
missile defense system will allow our nation to intercept and
destroy a missile bound for the United States regardless of the
launch point or whether the attack is aimed at destroying a city or
engaging in an EMP attack on the nation.
- Demand the Administration develop a National Recovery
Plan. In order to minimize lives lost and property
destroyed, the United States needs a plan that will address its
ability to recover quickly after an attack. The EMP Commission
emphasized that our nation must first improve the infrastructure on
which all other sectors are dependent, specifically citing electric
power and telecommunications. This risk-based approach recognizes
that certain infrastructure is key to post-EMP attack recovery. EMP
should also be added to the list of 15 disaster scenarios.
- Require more research on the EMP threat. More research is
needed in order to ensure that the United States fully understands
the scope of the danger and cost-effective countermeasures.
Need for Congressional Action
Before Congress ends its session this year, its members should
agree to make March 23 EMP Recognition Day. Even if Congress does
not stop feeding its staff, turn off the lights, or hitchhike to
work, simply recognizing the EMP threat would go a long way toward
better preparing America for this grave threat.
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, and James Jay
Carafano, Ph.D., is Assistant Director of the Davis Institute
and Senior Research Fellow for National Security and Homeland
Security in the Allison Center at The Heritage Foundation.