New York Times reporter William J. Broad recently pooh-poohed concerns about U.S. vulnerability to an electromagnetic pulse attack (EMP). It is the stuff of "science fiction," he implied. Along the way, he gets key facts wrong and omits many others that refute this view. Here are the facts.
An EMP is a high-intensity burst of electromagnetic energy generated by geomagnetic storms (often called space weather) or by nuclear and radio-frequency weapons. A nuclear warhead detonated at high altitude would cause current and voltage surges that would burn out electronic devices within the line of sight. We're not talking just cell phones and microwaves. And single EMP could shut down the entire power grid and transportation systems over a large region of the country, leaving tens of millions of Americans in a life-threatening situation.
The congressionally mandated Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse Attack called a high-altitude nuclear EMP one of the few ways an enemy could inflict "catastrophic" damage on the United States -- a fact Broad never mentions.
The Commission's report is no exercise in science fiction. It presents the consensus view of the defense and intelligence communities, as well as the nuclear weapon labs. These sober national security experts don't use the word "catastrophic" lightly.
Broad also fails to note that a second commission, the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States, independently re-examined the EMP threat and concurred with the EMP Commission's assessment. Indeed, five bipartisan commissions and independent U.S. government studies have all reached the same conclusion: EMP is a threat to our critical infrastructure and the American people.
Broad implies that America's current missile defense system could thwart an EMP attack and quotes a Missile Defense Agency spokesman as saying that the idea of damage arising from an EMP attack is "pretty theoretical" anyway. Yet the Defense Department of Defense spends huge sums hardening strategic communications and forces (including National Missile Defense) from EMP. That's because EMP damage is not merely "theoretical." Over five decades of empirical data from nuclear tests and EMP simulators prove incontrovertibly that the EMP threat is very real.
Broad cavalierly dismisses the possibility that a rogue nation might launch an EMP attack, characterizing their nuclear programs as being in the "kindergarten stage," lacking "big rockets and "powerful bombs." The implication: Only highly sophisticated long-range missiles armed with high-yield nuclear warheads could pull off an attack. Wrong again!
An EMP attack need not originate 3,000 miles away. All that's required, according to the EMP Commission, is a cheap short-range missile launched from a freighter in coastal waters -- the "scud-in-a-bucket" scenario.
It's a scenario that interests Iran. Tehran has tested launching missiles off a vessel in the Caspian Sea and detonating missiles at high altitude. Since Iran's Shahab-III missile can reach Israel and other Middle East targets from land bases, these tests would be useful only ifIran decides to attack some far-away nation from the sea.
Nor is a sophisticated high-yield nuclear weapon necessary. The EMP Commission warned that ANY nuclear weapon, even a low-yield first generation warhead, could produce an EMP catastrophe.
Broad suggests the recent explosions at Iranian nuclear and missile facilities and malfunctions in North Korean missile tests have lessened the EMP threat. But these event in no way negate the progress these states have made in recent years.
Iran has a large inventory of ballistic missiles and continues to increase their range, scale, and payload capabilities. So, too, does North Korea. In January, then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warned North Korean long-range missiles were becoming a "direct threat" to the United States.
Both Iran and North Korea already have missiles capable of making a ship-launched EMP attack against the United States.Pyongyang already has nuclear weapons, and Iran will soon.
Moreover, the EMP Commission warned, "China and Russia have considered limited nuclear attack options that, unlike their Cold War plans, employ EMP as the primary or sole means of attack."
Finally, Broad suggests that it would take "billions" to safeguard the nation from EMP. This is untrue. Significant EMP protection can be had for about $200 million. That's what it would take to harden the key transformers
Broad completely missed the real story: EMP is a real and growing threat to the United States -- one with potentially catastrophic consequences. Protection against EMP can be achieved at reasonable cost, and is needed urgently.
# # #
A national security expert, James Jay Carafano is director of The Heritage Foundation's Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies. Owen Graham is the Center's research coordinator.