Talk of an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack at the Republican National Security Debate, hosted on CNN by The Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, sparked CNN to interview Heritage’s James Carafano last week to discuss the devastating impacts of an EMP. Unfortunately, the United States remains unprotected from the effects of an EMP.

As the video explains, an EMP is a high-intensity burst of electromagnetic energy caused by a rapid acceleration of charged particles. An EMP can disrupt all electronic devices within its zone of impact by burning circuits and immobilizing electronic components and systems. It addition, the EMP would flow through the electricity transmission network, damaging power distribution centers and lines.

Experts have identified that detonating a singular nuclear weapon at a high altitude would 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 U.S. shorelines in international waters could cause a devastating EMP effect to a region.
Terrorists could also detonate a non-nuclear or improvised EMP device that would have the same disastrous effects on a localized scale. Though it would need to be detonated close to the target, this type of device could be made from readily available or manufactured materials and is easy to hide and maneuver. This makes it all the more worrisome that our critical infrastructure is not protected.

What is more unknown to the public is that an EMP could be caused by a large solar flare. Called the Carrington effect after the man who observed it in 1859, it shocked telegraph operators unconscious and their machines caught fire as the electromagnetic forces from the flare surged through the transmission lines.

These effects of an EMP on the United States today would be catastrophic. According to Carafano, “everything would be disabled.” This would lead to the collapse of America’s transportation, communication, and electrical systems, as “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.”

The U.S. should take several steps to guard against the crippling effects of an EMP attack. First, the U.S. should 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, public and private sectors should harden vital infrastructure to make it more resilient and resistant to an 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 and the public about the risks of an EMP and response options.

Jackson Marsteller is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit: