Two scholars from the congressionally mandated 2010 Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack make the case to protect the U.S. from a potentially catastrophic nuclear EMP attack on the U.S. by terrorists or rogue states.

William Radasky and Peter Vincent Pry rebut Yousaf M. Butt’s charge that the EMP threat is “overblown.” They point out that the EMP Commission report was a collaborative effort between “the Intelligence Community…the military services…the National Nuclear Security Administration laboratories…the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security,” all of which concluded that the nation is unprepared for an EMP attack.

An EMP is a high-intensity burst of electromagnetic energy caused by the rapid acceleration of charged particles. An EMP can change the magnetic field in the earth’s atmosphere to disrupt electronic devices by a pulse flowing through electricity transmission lines, overloading and damaging transmission distribution centers. According to Heritage’s James Carafano, in the event of an EMP, “communications would collapse, transportation would halt, and electrical power would simply be nonexistent.”

Butt charges that terrorists have access only to low-yield weapons and that such a weapon “would be restricted to only a small region of the country.” This premise is wrong on three counts:

  1. If terrorists do obtain a nuclear weapon, it will likely not be a one-kiloton weapon but a far more sophisticated one from Russia or a rogue state;
  2. The “brain drain” from Russia enabled North Korea to make (and potentially test) “Super-EMP” low-yield nuclear weapons that can generate very powerful EMP fields over wide geographic areas; and
  3. Even a low-yield weapon could knock out the entire Eastern seaboard if detonated from a higher altitude than the 40-kilometer level needed for peak EMP field results.

In addition, terrorists would not even need a long-range missile to deliver an EMP attack; they could instead launch a short- or medium-range missile from a freighter outside U.S. territorial waters. The attack would leave no “fingerprints,” since medium-range missile “signatures” are virtually identical and EMP trajectories are so short.

An EMP attack would cause cascading failures in other critical infrastructures and a possible national blackout. These conclusions are based on tests showing that E1 high-EMP simulators couple well to electric grid distribution power lines and low-voltage cables. Radasky and Pry point out that “electronic control systems are effectively the Achilles’ heel of our power delivery network.”

The electrical power grid supports all of America’s other critical infrastructures and is vulnerable to an EMP. Any credible threat depends on critical communications infrastructures. If an EMP attack should succeed, more than two-thirds of the American people could perish within 12 months of the event.

China, North Korea, and Russia have targeted EMPs as the primary means of attack to be used as a credible deterrent threat against the U.S. The U.S. should develop a comprehensive ballistic missile defense system to address this threat. In addition, the country needs to harden its infrastructure and make it more resilient to withstand potential attacks.

Jordan Harms is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please click here.