The Campaign to Terrify You About EMP

From Newt Gingrich to a Congressional "EMP Caucus", some conservatives warn the electronics-frying blast could pose gravely underestimated dangers to the U.S.

EMP july 15 p.jpg

Still from the film "33 Minutes," produced by EMPact America, warning of an EMP blast against the U.S. / YouTube

In 2009, former House Speaker and current struggling GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich gave the keynote address at a conference in Niagara Falls organized by an obscure Washington advocacy group called EMPact America. The self-proclaimed Republican "ideas man" was there to raise awareness of a national security issue that few people outside of DC have even heard of: the possibility of an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack against the United States.

According to Gingrich, EMP may be the greatest single threat facing America today. Such a blast, in theory, could shut down the continent's electrical grid. As he tells it, a terrorist group or rogue state could launch a nuclear missile against the American heartland, only instead of exploding it in the middle of a city as would be expected, the weapon would be designed to detonate miles in the atmosphere. The blast is too high to cause death or devastation on the ground, but the surge of electrical particles produced by the bomb scatters down to Earth and affects electronics like a giant bolt of lightning, crashing electrical gadgets for hundreds of miles. Cars, telephones, power stations: all silenced in a flash.

The scariness of the EMP threat comes from its falling dominoes nature: an electrical surge overloads a power transformer, which disables a regional grid; repairs are next to impossible because automobiles can also be affected. Fuel deliveries are held up. Food begins to spoil, and society starts to break down. If an EMP attack occurs in the right place -- say a nuclear bomb detonated over Nebraska -- the entire continental United States could feel the impact.
At least that's how the story goes.

As with many things in Washington, a cottage industry of lobbyists, specialists, and ex-government officials has come together to attest to the danger of an EMP attack. Ballistic missile defense seems to be the panacea for this group's concern, though a generous dose of preemption and war on terror are often prescribed as well. Congress even created a special EMP commission in 2001 to study the issue and make recommendations to government and industry. It seems the only ones who take the time to talk about EMP publicly, however, are those who believe it to be the paramount threat facing America. According to their warnings over the last decade, our vulnerability worsens every day, and that vulnerability invites an attack.

For example,  EMPact America, the group that hosted the conference at Niagara Falls, has been on a lobbying blitz in recent weeks to pass the SHIELD Act. The bill, which is backed by the Congressional "EMP Caucus" (yes, such a thing exists) is intended to protect the electrical grid of the continental United States from the effects of an EMP attack. EMPact America even produces a weekly, hour-long radio show devoted entirely to the issue, with recent guests including former CIA Director James Woolsey and Congressman Trent Franks. What sort of response have these warnings gotten so far? In Washington's nuclear arms control circles, where I've spent the past few months working as part of my research on the Iranian nuclear program, they're not really taken seriously.

But how can one side of a debate claim something threatens the very fiber of U.S. civilization, without getting so much as a nod in return? Serious public figures have taken up the cause: Congressmen, generals, scientists and strategists, all without much policy movement to show for their efforts.

It may be that a terrorist, after going through the trouble of acquiring a nuclear warhead and a missile capable of delivering it to America's shores, would be a fool to employ the ultimate weapon in such a cockamamie fashion. The effects of an EMP are far from universal; according to one commissioned study, a best-case scenario would impact 70 percent of electronics, while a worst-case estimate could be as low as 5 percent. Far better from the terrorist's perspective to deliver the bomb as it was intended, rather than hang his hopes on a series of unpredictable events and second- or third-order consequences. After all, a nuclear bomb need not be made any more devastating to serve a terrorist's purposes.

A slightly more plausible scenario could involve a state actor who, facing a vastly superior U.S. military massed on its border, might consider launching an EMP attack against U.S. troops as a way of evening the playing field. Because the U.S. military is much more highly dependent on technology than others, a rogue state facing the threat of invasion could conceivably attempt such a tactic against invading forces in the hopes that it could damage their capabilities without incurring the totally devastating retaliation that a "regular" nuclear strike would surely provoke. Of course, a wide-ranging EMP would knock out his own electronics as much as it would anyone else's, so even this scenario is a bit far-fetched.

But not as far-fetched as it may seem. One country's military has already come close to employing this tactic on the battlefield: our own. In 1991, Newsweek reported that General Norman Schwarzkopf sought authorization to use a nuclear EMP to cripple Saddam Hussein's forces at the start of the Gulf War. President George H.W. Bush nixed the plan, probably because the U.S. isn't in the habit of launching nuclear strikes of even the non-lethal kind, but the idea was tempting enough that this warfighter took it to his bosses for approval.

The bulk of the political debate today over EMP focuses on how disastrous it would be if the entire country's power went off all at once, which arms control experts argue is, to put it mildly, unlikely. Even "ideas man" Gingrich boils things down to a biblical catastrophe waiting to happen, but the reality is much more complicated. Nuclear weapons, after all, are more than enough of a threat in their own right. Putting too much emphasis on something as unlikely as an EMP attack against the American heartland risks distracting much-needed attention and resources away from threats that are simply more plausible.

As the Republican presidential primary heats up, Gingrich or another conservative voice may try to use the EMP "threat" as a campaign issue. So far, it has not been much of a political winner. Of course, when it comes to the politics of national security, it's often the loudest voice, not the most informed, that prevails.