Is U.S. Vulnerable to "Catastrophic" EMP Attack?

| by Heritage Foundation

By Michaela Bendikova

After 9/11, an event that Americans and their allies will never forget, the United States focused on a war on terrorism. There is, however, a threat that has been largely ignored—the threat of an electromagnetic pulse (EMP), noted by Investor’s Business Daily. In 2004 and 2008, the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse Attack (also known as the EMP Commission) released its reports on how to protect the United States from an EMP. Despite its recommendations, little progress has been made in protecting the country from an EMP attack and its catastrophic consequences.

An EMP is a high-intensity burst of electromagnetic energy caused by the rapid acceleration of charged particles. Nuclear and non-nuclear weapons or geomagnetic storms can cause an EMP. An EMP would disrupt electronics, transmission distribution centers, fuses, and power lines, sending the United States back to the19th century. While an EMP does not kill people, millions would die as the distribution of food, transportation, and delivery of a basic health care would collapse.

Manmade causes of an EMP include a nuclear weapon detonated at a high altitude. Intercontinental-range ballistic missiles are one of the possible means of delivery for such a scenario. Short-range, less technologically challenging, nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles launched off U.S. shores would deliver a similarly devastating attack. North Korea currently possesses nuclear weapons, and its missiles can reach Hawaii and Alaska. Iran continues to improve the range of its ballistic missiles and work towards obtaining nuclear weapons capability. A robust missile defense is essential for protection from this type of attack. Such a missile defense system, composed of Aegis ballistic missile defense capable ships; Aegis Ashore, a land-based missile defense component; and Unmanned Aerial Vehicle capabilities, can deprive the opponent of the opportunity to deliver a nuclear warhead on a ballistic missile and cause an EMP in the first place.

But an EMP could be inflicted without an organized group behind it. With the right equipment, a lone terroristcould cause a blackout of a city—with commercially available equipment. Time is running short. For about $200 million, the United States can harden the major transformers associated with large metropolitan areas. This would allow more people to survive the consequences of an EMP. If the electrical power grid were destroyed, it would take years to replace critical transformers, since only a few countries build them; it takes more than a year to make one transformer. The United States can and has the obligation to prevent another “failure of imagination.” The time to act is now.