Issue Brief #3699
August 13, 2012
An electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack on the U.S. would have devastating effects. On August 15, 2003, a major blackout occurred throughout the northeastern U.S. and Canada, offering a glimpse of what life would be like after an EMP attack. More than 55 million people were affected, but most services were restored within a day.
That would not be the case after an EMP. Damage to lives and property would be immense, and the ensuing devastation would continue for years, if not decades. Yet despite this substantial threat, the U.S. remains largely vulnerable to such an attack. In order to raise recognition of the threat and begin a national dialogue, Congress should establish August 15 as National EMP Awareness Day.
When the Lights Go Out
A successful EMP attack—a high-intensity burst of electromagnetic energy caused by a rapid acceleration of charged particles—would fundamentally change the world:
It would take years—possibly decades—to restore the U.S. electricity supply. Recovery abilities would be critically limited, and the country would be challenged to support current population levels. Millions would likely die.
Launching an Attack
One of the most effective means of delivering an EMP attack is detonating nuclear weapons at a high altitude. Energetic particles released during the explosion would disable, damage, or destroy all unhardened electronic devices within the line of sight of the detonation.
A rogue state would not need a long-range ballistic missile to deliver a nuclear warhead. Even short-range ballistic missiles carrying an EMP device or a nuclear warhead launched from a ship off the U.S. coast could impact millions. Today, over 30 countries, including Iran and North Korea, possess ballistic missile capabilities.
An EMP can also be created by a radio-frequency weapon. While comparatively easier and cheaper than a nuclear weapon mounted on a missile, a radio-frequency device must be detonated close to the target and does not produce as much damage.
Additionally, an EMP can be generated during a Carrington event, or space weather. In 1859, British astronomer Richard Carrington observed an unusually large solar flare. It reached earth minutes later and had a significant impact on telegraphs, which shocked their operators unconscious. A solar flare of this magnitude today would have a much more devastating impact, as modern society depends heavily on electronic devices.
Rejected Warnings and Failures in Preparedness
While the U.S. government has been aware of the threat of an EMP effect since its 1962 Starfish Prime nuclear weapons test, little has been done to harden civilian infrastructure. Key military systems were hardened during the Cold War, but interest in the EMP threat dropped precipitously after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Recommendations of various congressionally mandated commissions, such as the EMP Commission and the Quadrennial Defense Review Panel, have not fully materialized, despite increasing U.S. civilian and military reliance on electronic devices. Today, comprehensive threat assessments and scenario planning for EMP attacks remain underdeveloped. At the federal level, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) continues to lack a national recovery plan in the event of an EMP attack.
Similarly, an EMP event has not been included within the National Planning Scenarios. These high-consequence scenarios form the basis of federal, state, and local disaster response exercises that are intended to help determine response and recovery capabilities and needs and address problems before a disaster occurs. Given the potentially catastrophic consequences of an EMP attack and the unique nature of the threat, an EMP event should be added to the list of scenarios.
At the same time, state and local governments also remain poorly prepared for an EMP attack. These vulnerabilities are magnified by the fact that the federal government also remains unprepared and would likely be unable to render assistance in the event of an EMP attack.
Take Action Now
Bringing attention to the threat with a National EMP Awareness Day would help, but awareness should be joined with action. In order to prevent and mitigate the effects of a potential EMP attack, the U.S. government should:
Protect the Nation
The U.S. has the technology to protect itself from the effects of a deliberate attack or space weather. It is a no-brainer that the government should pursue these options and “provide for the common defense.” The nation should not continue to underestimate the threat of an EMP attack.
Michaela Bendikova is Research Assistant for Missile Defense and Foreign Policy and Jessica Zuckerman is a Research Associate 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.