July 27, 2009
When the 9/11 Commission issued its report, it
complained that federal agencies had a colossal
"failure of imagination." Nobody could accuse Newt
Gingrich from suffering that shortfall.
When he delivered a major address on national security
last week, the former Speaker of the House went after
Defense Secretary Robert Gates for planning for the
future the Pentagon wants, rather than dealing with the
many serious problems it may actually face. Gingrich
mentioned one challenge that many find too terrible to
contemplate - which is why our government should spend
a lot more time doing exactly that.
I'm referring to the Electro-Magnetic Pulse (EMP). This
method of attack is usually associated with a nuclear
blast. In addition to thermal, radiation, heat and
concussive force, an atomic detonation throws off an
incredible amount of electro-magnetic energy.
Picture a massive tsunami, but with lightning instead
of water. And, like the surge produced by lightning,
electrical systems act like antennas sucking down a
rush of electrons that fry circuits and burn out
EMP is not normally addressed when talking about
nuclear attack, because most nuclear strikes are
planned as low-air bursts where most of the energy, EMP
included, go straight into the ground (and flattening
the city in-between). In such scenarios, electrical
systems would be disabled by EMP, though few would
notice, because most people would have been crushed or
melted in the firestorm following the detonation.
A deliberate EMP attack, however, would be different.
If, for example, an enemy detonated a nuclear weapon
carried on a ballistic missile 200 miles or so above
the earth, people on the ground might never know an
attack occurred. But if the explosion happened high
enough over North America, the blossom of EMP might
cover the entire United States.
Last year, a congressional commission studied how a
high-altitude EMP strike would affect the nation's
infrastructure. The answer was simple: It would be
devastating. The entire U.S. electrical
grid might be gone and all the instruments of daily
life that depend on electrical power useless. Life in
United States, concluded the commission's chair,
scientist William Graham, "would be a lot like life in
the 1800s," except with a significantly bigger
Just keeping modern-day America fed would be
virtually impossible without working transportation or
communications systems. Water pumping and sewage
treatment plants would be off-line. Modern medical care
would be virtually non-existent. Even if the rest of
the world mustered the largest humanitarian mission in
human history, the suffering would be
often thought off of as attacks against the U.S.
infrastructure. But the truth is a large-scale
attack would be
an instrument of genocide.
Shockingly, some dismiss the threat out of hand.
Michael Crowley, writing in The New Republic, dismissed
the "Newt Bomb" as science fiction. That seems a real
stretch, especially given the report handed to
The EMP problem isn't talked about much, yes. But
not because responsible people think it's a sci-fi
scenario. They don't talk about it because they are so
overwhelmed by the challenges such an attack would
Washington is truly out to lunch on this one. Both
the Department of Defense and the Department of
Homeland Security place dealing with the threat of
catastrophic attack high on their lists of what keeps
them up at night. Yet DHS doesn't include an EMP as one
of their disaster-planning scenarios.
As for the Pentagon, Secretary Gates just cut 10
percent of the missile-defense budget, the best weapons
we have to prevent EMP attacks. The Congress is equally
in la-la land. Having commissioned the EMP report and
accepted its findings, last week the Senate joined the
House in rubber-stamping Gates' missile-defense
The idea that someone would attack the U.S. with jet
airliners once seemed unthinkable. An EMP attack may
seem today just as remote. But it's time to play it
safe -- and start figuring out how to deal with it.
Examiner Columnist James Jay Carafano is a senior
research fellow for national security at The Heritage
Foundation (www.heritage.org heritage.org)