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Not a movie made for TV

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An innocent-looking freighter sails 200 miles off the East Coast of the United States. In international waters, it appears to be no threat. However, its true intentions soon become evident. During the ship's transit over thousands of miles from a port in a country unfriendly to the United States, a SCUD missile remained concealed but is now being prepared for launch from the freighter's deck.

The warhead of the soon-to-be fired SCUD — a relatively inexpensive missile abundant around the world — is not designed to detonate on American soil or to inflict massive civilian casualties via a chemical, biological or nuclear weapon. This warhead's targeted impact is purely economic, for it is armed with an EMP (Electromagnetic Pulse) payload — tailor-made to inflict as much such damage as possible. And, as a recent study concludes, detonation over the Baltimore-Washington-Richmond corridor could result in economic output losses (exclusive of infrastructure replacement costs) "exceeding $770 billion or 7 percent of the nation's annual gross domestic product."

While Hollywood has just recently introduced EMP-related themes to the silver screen and television, the technology has existed since the Cold War. Its focus is to create catastrophic damage based on our reliance on electrical power.

An article by Tom Harris describes its potential destructive impact: "An electromagnetic bomb, or e-bomb, is a weapon designed to take advantage of this [electrical power] dependency. But instead of simply cutting off power in an area, an e-bomb would actually destroy most machines that use electricity. Generators would be useless, cars wouldn't run, and there would be no chance of making a phone call. In a matter of seconds, a big enough e-bomb could thrust an entire city back 200 years or cripple a military unit."

Thus, while moviegoers may perceive EMP either to be fantasy or a threat of only temporary disruptive consequence, such an attack — with long-term, devastating impact — is a very real possibility. And, terrorist groups today are fully capable of delivering such an attack. In fact, the SCUD-launching freighter scenario above is one Iran has been practicing for months in the Caspian Sea.

On Sept. 10, Instant Access Networks (IAN) in Maryland released the results of an assessment by an independent research group (Sage Policy Group) it retained to study the economic impact of an EMP attack over the Central East Coast area.

The study was triggered by concerns raised by two members of Congress — Republicans Roscoe Bartlett of Maryland in the House and Jon Kyl of Arizona in the Senate, both of whom have been expressing such concerns for years.

IAN's report brings home the frightening reality of an EMP attack and the devastating impact it would have within a 500-mile radius — from which it would take decades to recover. It is clearly economically unfeasible to protect, with shielding material capable of withstanding such an attack, all devices operating on electrical power. But, the study warns, steps are needed to shield at least part of our critical infrastructure — such as energy and communications. A community shielding just 10 percent of its critical infrastructure can reap much more than just a 10 percent gain as partial shielding reduces the time to recover and return to full economic vitality.

Damage from an EMP attack can be drastically increased if effected by a nuclear device detonated 300-400 miles above the North American continent. Such a high-altitude detonation would impact the entire United States and parts of Canada, possibly producing — similar to aftershocks of an earthquake — a secondary (and possibly tertiary), slower pulse wave capable of inflicting yet more damage.

With the catastrophic consequences of EMP no longer limited to the wild imagination of Hollywood scriptwriters, IAN and Frostburg State University have undertaken a pilot program on how best to protect our critical infrastructure. Mr. Bartlett praises this effort as "research that should be emulated nationwide by the private sector and universities in order to find cost-effective strategies for protecting the U.S. economy from the potential for devastating destruction by an EMP attack."

The only way to protect against an EMP attack, other than appropriate shielding, is to shut off all electrical equipment just prior to an attack — obviously an impossible protective measure. Thus, the reality is our dependency on electrical power, combined with our failure to protect critical infrastructure, can be our undoing.

It is imperative, therefore, that the private sector and U.S. government heed the warnings of Mr. Bartlett and Mr. Kyl by undertaking the necessary research and taking the necessary measures to make the consequences of a catastrophic EMP attack on the United States somewhat less catastrophic — by protecting, at a minimum, our critical infrastructure. If we fail to do so, one thing is assured: After suffering such an attack, it will be years before Hollywood can tell the story as it too awaits the long recovery process necessary to restore economic vitality.

James G. Zumwalt, a Marine veteran of the Persian Gulf and Vietnam wars, is a contributor to The Washington Times.

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