Consequences & Solutions

An electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack can be triggered by a nuclear warhead detonated at high altitude over America. The resulting blast will create an EMP, a shockwave that can "cripple military and civilian communications, power, transportation, water, food, and other infrastructure." Even if a high-altitude EMP kills nobody at first, it would paralyze a large section of the United States. The lingering practical and economic effects would take anywhere from hours to years to resolve: when secondary effects are considered, an EMP could be even deadlier than a direct nuclear strike against the mainland. As Rep. Roscoe Bartlett has written: "Where the terrorist airliner attacks of 9/11 killed thousands, a terrorist EMP attack could indirectly kill millions and conceivably cause the permanent collapse of our entire society."

Currently our country is unprepared to deal with the threat of EMPs. This section examines the impact that an EMP attack would have on the United States, as well as defensive measures that the U.S. can take. One measure is hardening our infrastructure against such an attack. But the most vital step is development of an adequate missile defense system.


The Impact of an EMP Attack
Gingrich's Worthy Brain Pulse
December 19, 2011

The Wall Street Journal Opinion

Newt Gingrich's rise in the polls has brought attention to his various "big ideas," and plenty of derision from other GOP Presidential hopefuls and the media. Among the most undeserved targets is the former Speaker's concern about an electromagnetic pulse (or EMP) attack.

In speeches and articles over many years, Mr. Gingrich has sounded the alarm about this vulnerability. A single nuclear explosion high in the Earth's atmosphere would create an electromagnetic pulse that could do enormous harm by destroying electronic circuits on the ground. "Such an event would destroy our complex, delicate high tech digital society in an instant and throw all our lives back to an existence equal to that of the Middle Ages," he wrote in an introduction to "One Second After," a 2009 science-fiction novel by William Forstchen. He has returned to this theme during the campaign. More...

Report of the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack
William R. Graham, John S. Foster, and Defense Department
January 1, 2008
This report is an essential reference for this topic.

It analyzes the effect of an EMP blast on critical American infrastructure (i.e. electrical power, food infrastructure, and emergency services), and offers recommendations for insulating the sector from harm.

"Because of the ubiquitous dependence of U.S. society on the electrical power system, its vulnerability to an EMP attack, coupled with the EMP's particular damage mechanisms, creates the possibility of long-term, catastrophic consequences. The implicit invitation to take advantage of this vulnerability, when coupled with increasing proliferation of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems, is a serious concern." More...

Report of the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack
Commission to Assess the Threat to the U.S. from EMP Attack
January 1, 2004
"The current vulnerability of our critical infrastructures can both invite and reward attack if not corrected."

This was a groundbreaking report that received a great deal of attention in homeland security circles. More...

Testimony of William Graham, Chairman of the Commission to Assess the Threat to the U.S. from EMP Attack
July 10, 2008
Graham summarized the EMP Commission's 2008 report in testimony delivered to the House Armed Services Committee.

"Although EMP was first considered during the Cold War as a means of paralyzing U.S. retaliatory forces, the risk of an EMP attack may be greater today than during the Cold War, as several adversaries seek nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, and asymmetric ways to overcome U.S. conventional superiority using one or a small number of nuclear weapons."

"The electromagnetic fields produced by weapons 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 critical infrastructures could be sufficient to qualify as catastrophic to the Nation." More...

High Altitude Electromagnetic Pulse (HEMP) and High Power Microwave (HPM) Devices: Threat Assessment
Clay Wilson
August 20, 2004
"The threat of an attack against the United States involving EMP is hard to assess, but some observers indicate that it is growing along with worldwide access to newer technologies and the proliferation of nuclear weapons."

"[W]hile HEMP weapons are large in scale and require a nuclear capability along with technology to launch high altitude missiles, HPM weapons are smaller in scale, involve a much lower level of technology, and may be within the capability of many non-state organizations." More...

The Blackout Next Time
Frank Gaffney
August 19, 2003
Framing the discussion of the EMP threat in context of the 2003 blackout, Gaffney reviews the Congressional and military responses to the problem.

"Determined terrorists could inflict lasting, if not actually permanent, damage on the United States' electrical and other computer-based systems by employing small nuclear or non-nuclear devices that generate what is known as electro-magnetic pulse (EMP)."

"The U.S. military, which used to pay serious attention to the question, largely stopped doing so after a moratorium was imposed in 1992 on all nuclear testing (including that done for EMP effects). Since then, the vulnerability of the armed forces' satellites, communications gear, and other hardware has become largely a matter of conjecture, if it is addressed at all. Matters are infinitely worse with respect to civilian electronic equipment, essentially none of which was designed with the costly features that would protect against EMP." More...

America's Vulnerability to a Different Nuclear Threat: An Electromagnetic Pulse
Jack Spencer
May 26, 2000
This backgrounder reviews the threat to America's strategic interests that an EMP poses.

After discussing the physical effects of an EMP blast, Spencer offers multiple scenarios in which an EMP could be used against America's interests.

In closing, he offers recommendations for Congress to combat the threat, including holding hearings, establishing a commission, and "pressing the Administration to deploy a national missile defense system as soon as technologically possible." More...

The Electromagnetic Pulse Commission Warns of an Old Threat with a New Face
Jack Spencer
August 3, 2004
This Heritage Foundation backgrounder provides an excellent summary of the EMP threat, and the 2004 Commission Report.

Spencer sounds the alarm on the relative inaction in the previous decade on protecting our infrastructure. "[S]ince the end of the Cold War, U.S. military and civilian systems have become increasingly dependent on advanced electronics that are potentially more vulnerable than older electronics to EMP attack--a trend that will likely continue."

He prescribes a list of actions that the United States could take to decrease its vulnerability. More...

Little Congressional Interest in EMP Threat
Defense News
July 10, 2008
"Potential adversaries such as Russia and China are believed to have the capability to launch an EMP strike... Iran has developed missiles that can loft the nuclear weapon needed for an EMP attack."

The article also exposes Congressional disinterest in combating the EMP threat. More...

View From the Hill
Rep. Roscoe Bartlett
October 19, 2004
Congressman Bartlett, Chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Projection Forces, published an article stressing the importance of the 2004 Report of the Commission to Assess the Threat to the U.S. from EMP Attack, and highlighted his perspective of the threat.

"Where the terrorist airliner attacks of 9/11 killed thousands, a terrorist EMP attack could indirectly kill millions and conceivably cause the permanent collapse of our entire society." More...

21st Century Complete Guide to Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack Threats, Report of the Commission to Assess the Threat of High-Altitude Nuclear Weapon EMP Attacks
Department of Defense
October 1, 2004
This electronic book provides a comprehensive guide to the threat of an EMP attack with a high-altitude nuclear weapon detonation.

It includes a complete reproduction of Volume 1 of the 2004 Report of the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from EMP Attack, and dozens of other military and government documents and reports, as well as relevant testimony from Congressional hearings. More...

U.S. Defenses
Giving Away the Farm
R. James Woolsey, Rebeccah Heinrichs
June 7, 2011

President Barack Obama's administration recently threatened to veto the defense budget, citing "serious concerns" over provisions that limit the U.S. missile defense know-how that the White House is permitted to share with Moscow. This is the sort of information that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, in his earlier days, would have assigned his spies to steal. Through its single-minded pursuit of "resetting" relations with Russia, the Obama administration may simply be willing to hand over this information and, in doing so, weaken U.S. national security. MORE...

China's President Hu Will Visit U.S. This Week But His Country Will Continue to Test U.S. Resolve
Rebeccah Heinrichs
January 17, 2011
As President Obama prepares to welcome Chinese President Hu Jintao to the White House this week, China is debuting new military capabilities and issuing threats of an arms race with Japan. When Hu arrives on January 19, he and Obama will discuss East Asian hotspots, including North Korea’s nuclear program and its artillery assault on the South in November.Obama should maintain strong U.S. military support for our allies in Asia, and resist pressure from Hu to return to the six-party talks, even if China offers to make concessions on its support for North Korea. MORE...

After New START
Clifford D. May
December 30, 2010
National-security hawks lost a battle last week when 71 members of the Senate — not all of them Democrats — voted to ratify New START. The treaty limits America’s non-nuclear long-range weapons. Its verification provisions are not as rigorous as those negotiated in the 1991 START treaty. And, perhaps most troubling, the Russians have made clear that they view the agreement as limiting America’s deployment of a comprehensive system of defenses against missile attacks. MORE...

What Kind of Defense Does The Tea Party Support?
Rebeccah Heinrichs
October 26, 2010
The Tea Party takes clear positions on government spending and regulation: It wants less of both. But on national security, its position is less clear. In the face of deepening criticism from her Tea Party opponent for being a Big Government Republican, in August, write-in candidate and Senate Energy Committee ranking member Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) convinced Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) to gut a small but important bill which would have expanded the authority of the federal government to protect our country’s electric grid from solar storms and electro-magnetic pulse (EMP) attacks.  MORE...

Hearing on What START Treaty Means for Missile Defense
Rebeccah Heinrichs
June 17, 2010
Yesterday Obama officials made the case before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the new START treaty will not have a negative effect on their plans to field a system to protect the United States from rogue regimes that are building ballistic missiles. No one seemed to need much convincing that the Obama administration doesn’t plan to make our missile defenses strong enough to bother the Russians, but treaties live on long after presidential administrations, so Senators rightly continue to probe the White House on how the treaty might restrict future defense planning.  MORE...

Russia, U.S. to Hold 1st Round of Talks on Missile Defense
Xinhua, October 8, 2009
MOSCOW, Oct. 8 (Xinhua) -- Russia and the United States will hold their first round of talks on missile defenses before an upcoming visit by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Foreign Ministry said Thursday.

The talks at the expert level will take place in Moscow, ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko said at a press briefing.

Nesterenko said the Russian delegation will be headed by Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, while the U.S. delegation will be led by Deputy Secretary of State Ellen Tausher, the Interfax news agency reported.  More...

New Missile Plan Would Link Allies' Radar, Other Systems
Walter Pincus
The Washington Post, October 8, 2009
A breakthrough that enables the early targeting of ballistic missiles by linking radars and other sensors from different parts of the world is key to the Obama administration's new missile defense plans, according to senior administration officials.

The administration announced last month that it would scrap a Bush-era plan to protect European countries and American troops stationed there from any potential Iranian missile attack. Instead of putting 10 interceptors in Poland and radar in the Czech Republic to counter intercontinental missiles, officials said, they would focus on containing Iran's ability to fire short- and medium-range ballistic missiles.  More...

Hillary's Right About the 'Defense Umbrella'
Ilan Berman and Clifford D. May
Wall Street Journal, August 24, 2009

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said recently in Thailand that if Iran acquires a nuclear weapon, the U.S. will offer allies in the Middle East a "defense umbrella" to prevent Iranian intimidation. That's a fine sentiment, but it raises the question: Are we capable of doing so?

The answer is more complicated than most people think. MORE...

Cash for Clunkers, Cuts for Missile Defense
Clifford D. May
NRO - The Corner, August 5, 2009
Jan Smith makes an interesting point on the Heritage Foundation's Foundry Blog: Recent polls have shown that the majority of Americans do not favor spending a couple billion more dollars on the "Cash for Clunkers" program, which benefits very few.  

By contrast, missile defense, a program that would benefit all Americans and our troops and allies overseas, has the support of 78% of Americans and in some polls near 90%; but funding is now being cut by $1.4 billion, with additional cuts down the road a real possibility - unless there is substantial pushback.  MORE ...

A Missile Defense System
Clifford D. May
The New York Times, August 3, 2009

To the Editor:

Re "Terror Creeps Into the Heartland" (column, July 23):

Nicholas D. Kristof makes a strong point when he writes that "Pakistan should be President Obama's top foreign policy challenge." Pakistan, the world's sixth largest country, is nuclear-armed and is facing a serious challenge from radical Islam in several manifestations - Al Qaeda and the Taliban being the best known.  More ...

Obama Missile Defense Plan Puts America at Risk
Baker Spring
The Heritage Foundation, June 29, 2009

"On February 2, 2009, Iran successfully launched a satellite into orbit using a rocket with technology similar to that used in long-range ballistic missiles. On May 20, 2009, Iran test-fired a 1,200-mile solid-fueled ballistic missile. North Korea attempted to launch a satellite on April 6, 2009, which, while failing to place the satellite in orbit, delivered its payload some 2,390 miles away in the Pacific Ocean. This was followed by a North Korean explosive nuclear weapons test on May 25, 2009. The ballistic-missile threat to the U.S. and its friends and allies is growing. Under these circumstances, common sense would dictate that the Obama Administration support full funding for the U.S. missile defense program..."More...

What a Single Nuclear Warhead Could Do
Brian T. Kennedy
November 24, 2008

As severe as the global financial crisis now is, it does not pose an existential threat to the U.S. Through fits and starts we will sort out the best way to revive the country's economic engine. Mistakes can be tolerated, however painful. The same may not be true with matters of national security.

Although President George W. Bush has accomplished more in the way of missile defense than his predecessors -- including Ronald Reagan -- he will leave office with only a rudimentary system designed to stop a handful of North Korean missiles launched at our West Coast. Barack Obama will become commander in chief of a country essentially undefended against Russian, Chinese, Iranian or ship-launched terrorist missiles. This is not acceptable. More...

The Need for Missile Defense
Peter Brookes
November 1, 2008
Despite Iran's runaway nuclear program, North Korea's atomic assistance to Syria, and robust ballistic missile production and testing by Russia and China, a missile defense system for protecting the homeland and U.S. interests overseas remains a controversial idea in some corners. It should not be. The security challenge arising from the proliferation of ballistic missiles and the dangerous payloads they might carry, including weapons of mass destruction (wmd) like nuclear arms, is a threat that - in fact - may be growing. More...

The Next Frontier
Robert L. Pfaltzgraff, Jr.
May 1, 2006
Space is vital to America's future. The United States has a strong interest in securing the peaceful uses of space in support of its economic, political, and defense needs. It likewise requires unfettered access to space as an indispensable part of its national security. As such, the U.S. has a vested interest in formulating a modern strategy that is able, in the words of the 2001 Rumsfeld Space Commission, to "deter and defend against hostile acts directed at U.S. space assets and against the uses of space hostile to U.S. interests."1 Yet, even though it is now well into its second term, the Bush administration has yet to set forth such a national strategy. More...

Congress Should Establish EMP Recognition Day
Jena Baker McNeill and James Jay Carafano, Ph.D.
September 15, 2008
The threat of an Electro-Magnetic Pulse (EMP) attack against the United States is credible. Such a strike could have a devastating impact on the nation by disabling electrical systems, grinding the economy to a halt, and possibly resulting in the deaths of millions. Yet other than establishing a commission to study the problem and holding a handful of hearings, Congress has done virtually nothing to address the issue. Such inaction could change virtually overnight, however, if Congress held even one EMP Recognition Day. More...

News Transcript: DoD News Briefing with Lt. Gen. Obering from the Pentagon
Lt. Gen. Obering
July 15, 2008
In this briefing, Obering describes missile defense technology, including the SM-3 interceptor, and testing.

"[W]hat is concerning is that this extending range [of Iran's ballistic missiles] is much farther beyond anything that they would need in a regional conflict with Israel, because a missile that is capable of even 1,300 or 1,500 kilometers could encompass the Israeli country as well as -- the country of Israel as well as the U.S. bases in the region." More...

Brilliant Pebbles
January 1, 2005
"Brilliant Pebbles, the top anti-missile program of the Reagan and the first Bush administration, was an attempt to deploy a 4,000-satellite constellation in low-Earth orbit that would fire high-velocity, watermelon-sized projectiles at long-range ballistic missiles launched from anywhere in the world."

"Although the program was eliminated by the Clinton Administration, the concept of Brilliant Pebbles remains among the most effective means of ballistic missile defense." More...

Missile Defense Systems
January 1, 2008 provides a list of missile defense systems organized by country, with brief explanations of each system, and an evaluation of its strengths and weaknesses.

This assessment and explanation is useful in understanding the current missile defense technology that is available. More...

Missile Defense Budget Boosts Requested
Wade Boese
March 1, 2008
Reviewing the defense budget recommendations, Boese concludes, "All told, the Pentagon's fiscal year 2009 baseline budget request of $515.4 billion contains approximately $12.7 billion for anti-missile programs, a $1.9 billion increase above the previous request."

"The Army is seeking nearly $986 million for developing and procuring the Patriot and related systems. More than half that total will go toward buying 108 Patriot Advanced Capability-3 interceptors, which are designed to counter short- and medium-range missiles near the end of their flights. The Patriot anti-missile system is the only one that is battle-tested, and the results were mixed." More...

Georgian War Could Revitalize Chances for European Missile Defense Sites
Josh Rogin
August 13, 2008
This article discusses Congress' reinvigorated discussion of missile defense systems as a result of the war in Georgia, and includes statements from the current Presidential candidates.

"Congress will not and should not fund a [missile defense] system until testing has proven that it works, and that testing will not be completed until 2010 at the earliest," said Wendy Morigi, a spokesman for Barack Obama, D-Ill.

Rogin writes, "Democrats have also consistently cut funding for the [European missiles] project, estimated by the Congressional Research Service to cost a total $4.8 billion, in an effort to steer it towards more oversight and accountability." More...

Planning Our Nation's Defense for an Unknown Future
Fred C. Ikle
August 10, 2008
The United States is increasingly forced to deal with challenges of deteriorated defense equipment and underfunded defense programs while facing an increasing multi-dimensional threat.

An EMP attack has the potential to completely devastate "America's electric system and telecommunications from coast to coast, the system could not be restored for a long time."

"The best protection might be a combination of air defense against cruise missiles, ballistic-missile defense and relatively cheap measures to reduce the vulnerability of the electric system and to accelerate its recovery."

"[W]hat has been implemented to avert such an apocalyptic ending of our nation? Nothing has been implemented." More...

Unready For This Attack
Sen. Jon Kyl
April 16, 2005
The effects of an EMP could last for years after its detonation, and "it is probably the easiest" way a terrorist could defeat the United States.

Such an attack would cripple the transportation industry, food supply, public health, and could create widespread fires that could cause further death and destruction.

The threat is worsened by the fact that "al Qaeda is believed to own about 80" freight vessels, from which such a weapon could be launched into the atmosphere above an American city. More...