The global proliferationofnuclear weapons and their delivery technologies to dangerous state and non-state adversaries makes the Report of the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack an especially timely publication. Having a common goal of neutralizing the United States’ ability to deter their diverse strategic objectives, EMP attack would benefit all members of such a coincidental alliance, especially if non-attribution could be reasonably assured to delay or frustrate U.S. retribution.
As with any catastrophe that has not yet been witnessed or experienced by Americans, it is difficult to muster the national will and resources needed to mitigate it at a tempo that exceeds the threat. Unfortunately, in the case of a surprise EMP attack for which we are not prepared, there won’t be a second chance to get it right. Once executed, the post-attack United States would likely be reduced to a pathetic state of receivership. The fact that the perpetrators would be able to achieve their limited local objectives will seem trivial next to our own national trauma.
EMP is caused by the high altitude detonation of a nuclear weapon at between 30 and 400 kilometers above the Earth’s surface. All electronic circuitry and/or conductive paths within line-of-sight of the explosion are susceptible to the destructive effects of the peculiar radio frequency pulse that accompanies such events, and far beyond the heat and radiation effects of the detonation itself.
The impact of EMP is asymmetric in relation to our adversaries. The less-developed societies of North Korea, Iran and other potential EMP attack perpetrators are less electronically dependent and less specialized, while more capable of continued functionality in the absence modern conveniences.
Conversely, the United States would be subject to widespread paralysis and doubtful recovery following a surprise EMP attack. Therefore, terrorists and their coincidentally allied state sponsors may determine that given just a few nuclear weapons and delivery vehicles the subjection of the United States to a potentially non-attributable EMP attack is more desirable than the destruction of selected cities. Delayed mass lethality is assured over time through the cascade of EMP’s indirect effects that would bring our highly specialized and urbanized society to a disorderly halt.
The EMP commission report detailed corrective measures in the form of an overall strategy and specific recommendations. The strategy combines focused intelligence, continued deterrence, and enhanced protection of critical infrastructure with education, government tasks and vulnerabilityassessments, among other objectives. Specific recommendations span the realm of strategic- and tactical-weapons survivability to EMP survivability of critical electrical, telecommunications, transportation, food-distribution and other cornerstones of American societal viability.
One noteworthy finding of the commission was that while shielding and protection needed to make systems survivable to EMP after manufacture may be cost-prohibitive en masse, new systems can have EMP protection fully integrated in design at a reasonable 1 to 3 percent of the new system cost.
For timeliness it is imperative that the conclusions and recommendations of the commission be accepted as authoritative and executable. This requires top-down Presidential and congressional direction to prevent bureaucratic resistance to the resource implications of rapidly correcting our nation’s self-generated vulnerability to EMP. On a smaller scale, the United States successfully met the year 2000 deadline at mitigating the Y2K threat to information systems.
The EMP threat is more dangerous and arguably more urgent, as earlier surprises outside of current threat estimates cannot be ruled out. This is especially true now that the commission has publicly confirmed the attractiveness of an EMP attack, and the proliferating genie of the EMP attack capability has long been out of the secure bottle. The American public is now enlightened to the threat. If we fail to act we have only ourselves to blame when such an attack brings us to our knees.
The vulnerability of the United States to EMP attack serves as the latest revelation that societal protections associated with our National Security can no longer be assured by traditional nuclear deterrence and battlefield preparations on their own.
The report of the EMP commission seeks to immediately initiate American preparations for this proliferation-fueled inevitability. No mere summary of its findings and recommendations can do it proper justice. Instead, the report must be read in its entirety, and can be found at https://empcreport.ida.org.
Much time has been lost on implementation, as we are approaching a full year since the report of the EMP commission was published. The nation therefore needs to take concrete action now.
Maj. Franz J. Gayl is a retired Marine who now works as a civil servant in the Pentagon. He also serves as the science and technology advisor to the deputy commandant of the Marine Corps for plans, policies and operations.