Hurricane Irene hit the East Coast and left more than 6 million homes and businesses without power. Transportation services were disrupted as a result of the hurricane. More than a million people got an idea of what it would be like if the United States were attacked by an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapon. An EMP would cause current and voltage surges and burn out the semi-conductor chips of all electronic devices within the line of sight. An EMP is a high-intensity burst of electromagnetic energy caused by the rapid acceleration of charged particles caused by nuclear weapons, non-nuclear weapons (radio-frequency weapons), or geomagnetic storms (often called space weather).

The most dangerous “EMP scenario” is a nuclear weapon attack. The higher the altitude of a nuclear weapon detonation, the larger the area that is impacted by the EMP. A single nuclear weapon has the potential to instantly send the United States back to the 19th century. Such an attack would likely cause millions of casualties, as basic elements necessary to sustain life in dense urban and suburban communities would not be available.

Because the altitude of the detonation matters, the most effective delivery mechanism for an EMP weapon is a ballistic missile. From long-range missiles currently under development in North Korea and Iran—and already possessed by Russia and China—to short-range nuclear-tipped missiles launched from vessels, submarines, or container ships off the U.S. coast, the United States remains vulnerable to an EMP attack.

To address this threat, it is essential to expand the ballistic missile protection of the U.S. homeland. A system better than the current one would be comprised of Aegis ballistic missile defense capable ships; Aegis Ashore, a land-based missile defense component; and Unmanned Aerial Vehicle capabilities. So far, the Obama Administration’s record is questionable. It has made massive cuts to the U.S. missile defense program and cancelled some of the most promising programs.

In addition, for about $200 million, the United States can harden the major transformers close to major metropolitan areas. This relatively minor investment could save millions of American lives and should be appropriated despite the current fiscal constraints.