Electro-Magnetic Pulse: The Biggest Threat No One Talks About

On a clear December morning in 2007 that we’ll never forget, no one noticed the small freighter in the North Atlantic, or the small Scud missile it launched. In seconds, the missile climbed some 300 miles into the upper atmosphere.

When it was over Kansas, the onboard atomic device exploded—releasing an enormous pulse of high-energy electrons that waltzed with the Earth’s magnetic field producing a radio frequency wave a million times stronger than anything ever produced on Earth. As the wave surged downward, darkness and silence marched across the American continent. The electrical grid overloaded and burned out. With ATM and credit cards worthless, the economy collapsed. All motor vehicles suddenly stalled, their electrical components fused, marooning motorists nationwide. Planes plunged, elevators froze mid-floor, phones died.

In seconds America had been “bombed back to the Stone Age” by some foreign Curtis LeMay.

This nightmare scenario emerges from chapter six of War Footing: 10 Steps America Must Take to Prevail in the War for the Free World by Frank J. Gaffney (Naval Institute Press, 2005). An electro-magnetic pulse—or EMP— caused by a specially designed nuclear device is “the biggest threat that no one talks about,” Gaffney told me over lunch recently.

Could it happen? Gaffney cites a number of possibilities: Al Qaeda could equip a freighter to launch a short-range ballistic missile, scuds and nuclear warheads could be purchased from North Korea. As for the catastrophic effect, there is little doubt, according to the EMP Threat Commission, which was created by Congress in 2000. Its final report, released in 2004, warned exactly of the kind of attack cited above.

Scientists and military officials have long known about the dangers of EMP. In a 1962 test called “Starfish,” the U.S. military detonated a nuclear device some 250 miles over Johnston Island in the Pacific. The EMP wave stretched 700 miles to Hawaii, knocking out street lights.

Nor is EMP a mystery to America’s enemies. The EMP Threat Commission conducted a global survey of foreign scientific and military literature and learned that a number of America’s rivals or enemies studied EMP, including China, Russia, Iran, North Korea and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

Gaffney decries the Pentagon’s lack of interest in the EMP threat. Still there may be good reasons for the Pentagon not to worry. Acquiring and maintaining a working nuclear weapon still seems out of the reach of terrorist groups. The real threat is rogue states. It is extremely unlikely a Scud could be launched from a ship—its highly unstable liquid propellant must be fueled immediately prior to launch, something that would be both difficult and dangerous to do at sea. To date, no nation has developed a nuclear device specially designed for EMP. And of course, even if the weapon succeeded in eliminating the entire electronic infrastructure of the continental United States (a big if), America’s ability to retaliate from submarines and overseas bases is likely to deter any such attack from a rogue state.

Still Gaffney’s book raises serious questions about EMP and other threats. War Footing is a fast-paced read—the ultimate briefing book for the concerned citizen.