June 14, 2005

Electromagnetic Pulse: A Real Threat to the Security of the United States

Frank Gaffney delivered a speech on May 24, 2005, in Dallas, Texas, at a Hillsdale College National Leadership Seminar on the topic, "America’s War Against Islamic Terrorism."

An adapted version of that speech can be found in the latest edition of Hillsdale College's Imprimis publication and is entitled "EMP: America’s Achilles’ Heel".

...[What if the] destruction [of America] could be accomplished with a single attack involving just one relatively small-yield nuclear weapon—and if the nature of the attack would mean that its perpetrator might not be immediately or easily identified.

Unfortunately, such a scenario is not far-fetched. According to a report issued last summer by a blue-ribbon, Congressionally-mandated commission, a single specialized nuclear weapon delivered to an altitude of a few hundred miles over the United States by a ballistic missile would be "capable of causing catastrophe for the nation." The source of such a cataclysm might be considered the ultimate "weapon of mass destruction" (WMD)—yet it is hardly ever mentioned in the litany of dangerous WMDs we face today. It is known as electromagnetic pulse (EMP)...

Estimates of the combined direct and indirect effects of an EMP attack prompted the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse Attack to state the following in its report to Congress:

The electromagnetic fields produced by weapons designed and deployed with the intent to produce EMP have a high likelihood of damaging electrical power systems, electronics, and information systems upon which American society depends. Their effects on dependent systems and infrastructures could be sufficient to qualify as catastrophic to the nation.

...The EMP Threat Commission estimates that, all other things being equal, it may take “months to years” to bring such systems fully back online. Here is how it depicts the horrifying ripple effect of the sustained loss of electricity on contemporary American society:

Depending on the specific characteristics of the attacks, unprecedented cascading failures of our major infrastructures could result. In that event, a regional or national recovery would be long and difficult and would seriously degrade the safety and overall viability of our nation. The primary avenues for catastrophic damage to the nation are through our electric power infrastructure and thence into our telecommunications, energy, and other infrastructures. These, in turn, can seriously impact other important aspects of our nation’s life, including the financial system; means of getting food, water, and medical care to the citizenry; trade; and production of goods and services...

Unfortunately, today’s strategic environment has changed dramatically from that of the Cold War, when only the Soviet Union and Communist China could realistically threaten an EMP attack on the United States. In particular, as the EMP Threat Commission put it:

The emerging threat environment, characterized by a wide spectrum of actors that include near-peers, established nuclear powers, rogue nations, sub-national groups, and terrorist organizations that either now have access to nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles or may have such access over the next 15 years, have combined to raise the risk of EMP attack and adverse consequences on the U.S. to a level that is not acceptable.

Worse yet, the Commission observed that "some potential sources of EMP threats are difficult to deter." This is particularly true of "terrorist groups that have no state identity, have only one or a few weapons, and are motivated to attack the U.S. without regard for their own safety." The same might be said of rogue states, such as North Korea and Iran. They "may also be developing the capability to pose an EMP threat to the United States, and may also be unpredictable and difficult to deter." Indeed, professionals associated with the former Soviet nuclear weapons complex are said to have told the Commission that some of their ex-colleagues who worked on advanced nuclear weaponry programs for the USSR are now working in North Korea.

Even more troubling, the Iranian military has reportedly tested its Shahab-3 medium-range ballistic missile in a manner consistent with an EMP attack scenario. The launches are said to have taken place from aboard a ship—an approach that would enable even short-range missiles to be employed in a strike against "the Great Satan." Ship-launched ballistic missiles have another advantage: The "return address" of the attacker may not be confidently fixed, especially if the missile is a generic Scud-type weapon available in many arsenals around the world. As just one example, in December 2002, North Korea got away with delivering twelve such missiles to Osama bin Laden’s native Yemen. And Al Qaeda is estimated to have a score or more of sea-going vessels, any of which could readily be fitted with a Scud launcher and could try to steam undetected within range of our shores.

The EMP Threat Commission found that even nations with whom the United States is supposed to have friendly relations, China and Russia, are said to have considered limited nuclear attack options that, unlike their Cold War plans, employ EMP as the primary or sole means of attack...

What makes the growing EMP attack capabilities of hostile (and potentially hostile) nations a particular problem for America is that, in the words of the EMP Threat Commission, "the U.S. has developed more than most other nations as a modern society heavily dependent on electronics, telecommunications, energy, information networks, and a rich set of financial and transportation systems that leverage modern technology." Given our acute national dependence on such technologies, it is astonishing—and alarming—to realize that:

Very little redundancy has been built into America’s critical infrastructure. There is, for example, no parallel “national security power grid” built to enjoy greater resiliency than the civilian grid.

America’s critical infrastructure has scarcely any capacity to spare in the event of disruption—even in one part of the country (recall the electrical blackout that crippled the northeastern U.S. for just a few days in 2003), let alone nationwide.

America is generally ill-prepared to reconstitute damaged or destroyed electrical and electricity-dependent systems upon which we rely so heavily.

These conditions are not entirely surprising. America in peacetime has not traditionally given thought to military preparedness, given our highly efficient economy and its ability to respond quickly when a threat or attack arises. But EMP threatens to strip our economy of that ability, by rendering the infrastructure on which it relies impotent.

In short, the attributes that make us a military and economic superpower without peer are also our potential Achilles' heel. In today’s world, wracked by terrorists and their state sponsors, it must be asked: Might not the opportunity to exploit the essence of America’s strength—the managed flow of electrons and all they make possible—in order to undo that strength prove irresistible to our foes? This line of thinking seems especially likely among our Islamofascist enemies, who disdain such man-made sources of power and the sorts of democratic, humane and secular societies which they help make possible. These enemies believe it to be their God-given responsibility to wage jihad against Western societies in general and the United States in particular...

We have been warned. The members of the EMP Threat Commission—who are among the nation’s most eminent experts with respect to nuclear weapons designs and effects—have rendered a real and timely public service. In the aftermath of their report and in the face of the dire warnings they have issued, there is no excuse for our continued inaction. Yet this report and these warnings continue to receive inadequate attention from the executive branch, Congress and the media. If Americans remain ignorant of the EMP danger and the need for urgent and sustained effort to address it, the United States will continue to remain woefully unprepared for one of the most serious dangers we have ever faced. And by remaining unprepared for such an attack, we will invite it.

The good news is that steps can be taken to mitigate this danger—and perhaps to prevent an EMP attack altogether. The bad news is that there will be significant costs associated with those steps, in terms of controversial policy changes and considerable expenditures. We have no choice but to bear such costs, however. The price of continued inaction could be a disaster of infinitely greater cost and unimaginable hardship for our generation and generations of Americans to come.

You will learn much more by reading the entire article.

In addition, this link leads to a release from the Center for Security Policy, which Gaffney leads, and the executive summary of the classified EMP Commission report.