On Wednesday, the House Subcommittee on Cybersecurity, Infrastructure Protection, and Security Technologies will hold a hearing on the consequences of an Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) attack.
This is a good first step to raise awareness about the issue. An EMP, a high-intensity burst of electromagnetic energy caused by a rapid acceleration of charged particles, would disrupt, damage, or destroy all modern, unhardened electronic devices. Planes would fall from the sky. Most cars would be inoperable. Cell phones, TVs, and computers would not work. Water, sewer, and electrical networks would fail. Banking, energy, transportation, food production and delivery, emergency services, and even cyberspace would collapse—all at the same time.
The most effective means of delivering an EMP attack is to detonate a nuclear weapon at a high altitude. China and Russia have weapons specifically designed to deliver an EMP. More than 30 countries around the world—including Iran and North Korea—have ballistic missile technologies, a key enabler in conducting the attack. U.S. adversaries with long-range ballistic missile capability can reach the homeland in a mere 33 minutes. This is why a comprehensive ballistic missile defense system is an essential component in countering the threat of an EMP attack.
Radio-frequency weapons can also cause smaller-scale EMPs, but they have to be detonated close to the grid of a device that the attacker intends to destroy. In addition, solar flares (or “space weather”) can create an EMP and damage satellites and electric systems on the earth.
The Heritage Foundation recently called for a National EMP Awareness Day, which, in addition to congressional hearings, would be a good starting point for drawing more attention to this important issue. In addition to expanding U.S. missile defense program, the Administration should develop a National Recovery Plan to recommend post-attack recovery steps and protect and harden the nation’s cyber infrastructure, which is essential for coordinating crisis responses effectively.
The U.S. possesses technologies to address the EMP threat and should put them to a good use before it is too late.