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  • EMPs: The Next Great Threat to America

    This week at The Republican National Security Debate, hosted on CNN by The Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, an electromagnetic pulse attack (EMP) was mentioned as one of the most important national security issues that is not discussed often. This is true. Despite the gravity of the threat, the United States remains unprotected from the effects of an EMP.

    An EMP is a high-intensity burst of electromagnetic energy caused by a rapid acceleration of charged particles. The EMP would disrupt all electronic devices within its zone of impact. It would burn circuits and immobilize electronic components and systems. It addition, the EMP would flow through electricity transmission lines and would damage distribution centers and power lines.

    Detonating a singular nuclear weapon at a high altitude can create an EMP large enough to envelop the entire continental United States. The nuclear weapon could be delivered by a long-range ballistic missile from Iran, China, Russia, or North Korea. Even a short-range nuclear-tipped missile launched off of the U.S. shore could cause a devastating EMP effect.

    But not all causes of an EMP are man-made, as it can also be caused by a large solar flare called the Carrington effect. The last time such an event happened on a larger scale, it shocked telegraph operators unconscious and their machines caught on fire as the electromagnetic forces from the flare surged through the lines.

    The effects of an EMP on today’s society would be even more devastating. According to Heritage’s James Carafano, “communications would collapse, transportation would halt, and electrical power would simply be nonexistent. Not even a global humanitarian effort would be enough to keep hundreds of millions of Americans from death by starvation, exposure, or lack of medicine.”

    There are some simple steps that can be taken to prevent against the crippling effects of an EMP attack. First, the U.S. needs to build and adequately fund a robust missile defense system composed of Aegis ballistic missile capable ships, and Aegis Ashore, the land-based ballistic missile component. Second, both the public and private sectors should harden vital infrastructure to make it more resilient and resistant to the EMP—to hedge against an attack or prepare for a solar flare. Third, the U.S. should develop a national plan to respond to EMP emergencies. This would involve educating federal, state, and local officials along with the public about the risks and response options.

    Jackson Marsteller is a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. Click here for more information on interning at Heritage.

    Posted in Security [slideshow_deploy]

    7 Responses to EMPs: The Next Great Threat to America

    1. Alan says:

      An EMP attack would indeed be devastating from many perspectives:

      (i) A single nuclear weapon of 10-20 kilotons detonated at very high altitude (low Earth orbit) would be sufficient – it would be much easier for a North Korea or Iran to launch this type of attack rather than to try the MAD approach of the Soviet era.

      (ii) ABM systems would not be effective as these are typically used when ballistic missiles are coming down from high altitude, which a HEMP weapon does not need to do.

      (iii) A HEMP attack would disable the power grid, communications systems and many electronic devices across the entire country (so no food distribution, gas, power, mobile phones, hospitals, banking…). Getting these services re-established on a large scale before there is significant loss of life would be almost impossible.

      (iv) It would be tough to respond in-kind to this type of attack – it would be hard to argue that it would justify launching nuclear weapons to land on the offending country, the only viable respons would be to retaliate in-kind. Also, a country that launched this type of attack may expect retaliation and may already be hardening their infrastructure (which does not require much concrete only conductive metal mesh screens).

      (v) Retaliating in-kind may be difficult as a HEMP weapon affects a fairly large geographic region and would have a circular affected area. We would not want to impact neighboring countries for example.

      (vi) The US has been developing EMP type weapons for battlefield use however it is not clear if we have HEMP type weapons of our own to launch a retaliatory attack

    2. Mark Whiting says:

      What we have to do NOW is get the national electric grid protected. There's a bill in Congress that will get that started, so please support H.R. 668 by going to http://www.GuardTheGrid.com and http://www.SHIELDact.com and use the quick and easy tools to send a message to Congress.

    3. clint says:

      Scientists who are unbiased take a skeptical view of this threat:
      http://www.thespacereview.com/article/1549/1

      • John says:

        You didn't really read the report did you? The report takes late 50's and early 60's data and examines the impact. The report also qualifies that data by saying current integrated circuitry is 1 million times more vulnerable that technology of that era. It also qualifies the Hawaii data by saying that due to the short lines there the effects may not have been the same as over the continental U.S. The report says "The bottom line is that, indeed, our infrastructure is vulnerable to significant E1 and E3 pulses." and says that the effect of a one kiloton device would impact no more than perhaps one state. Okay, knock out the state of New York with all of the financial markets and see what happens. And given the history of our electrical grid having cascading failures I don't think you can state for a certainty that the effect would be limited.

    4. Displaced2 says:

      The book Preppers Road March details a fictional account of surviving after a solar storm takes the grid out. Fast read

    5. Drik says:

      An EMP device can be cobbled together in a shopping cart and set off in a city park and still take out 3 square miles of better than half of the electrical devices within that area. Instead of worrying about all the logistics of some country going thru all the risk and technolgy to set off a nuclear weapon at altititude, we ought look at what has to happen to protect our cities from the jihadists on the ground. We have a ton of folks who come here on tourist and student visas and then diappear. And takiing off my shoes at an airport isn't going to fix that.

    6. EMP says:

      The book one second after details this problem.

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