The Heritage Foundation
Protecting America in the New Missile Age


U.S. Vulnerable to EMP Attacks


The United States is vulnerable to Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) attacks. Unfortunately, most Americans are unaware or ignore the threat. “Nuclear device detonated high in the atmosphere above the American mainland can easily disable the country’s electrical grid,” write James Carafano and Richard Weitz in their most recent Backgrounder.

An EMP occurs when a nuclear device is detonated high in the atmosphere. The electromagnetic discharge can permanently disable the electrical systems that run nearly all civilian and military infrastructures. At altitudes between 40 to 400 kilometers, these gamma rays produce high-energy free electrons that give rise to an oscillating electric current that destroys electronic equipment. In addition, an EMP can occur during massive solar eruptions which have the potential to send a blast of radiation toward Earth and impact functioning of electronic devices. We need to devote a lot more effort to building up resistance to solar tsunamis as well as manmade threats.

In recent years, the United States has seen the rapid growth in its dependence on electronics, telecommunications, and information technology. These technological innovations have brought great benefits, but also make the United States—and its component states and localities—vulnerable to an EMP attack. Many Americans have experienced the burdens of a short blackout (e.g. in the August 2003 Northeast blackout that affected Ohio, New York, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and parts of Canada). Because of the riots that followed the disruption, it became apparent that the United States could not survive as a unified civil nation with the long-term loss of the electrical grid.

Fortunately, there are steps that can be taken to defend the United States and Canada against EMP attacks. Ensuring a resilient U.S.–Canadian power grid is one of them. You can protect the main electric transformers for $200 million. In addition, it is within the power of private companies and individuals to “harden” the vital infrastructure. Better yet, it is less expensive to manufacture devices that are already “hardened” rather than add EMP protection later. Other essential components of mitigating the threat include an early warning system, system-situational awareness, ballistic missile defenses, and robust command and control to ensure cooperation and effective coordination between government agencies and private companies during a crisis.

In 2004, the Commission to Assess the Threat of the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) reported that “EMP is one of a small number of threats that can hold our society at risk of catastrophic consequences.” Yet, Congress has done next to nothing to protect the U.S. from an EMP attack.

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