EMP. Those three little letters represent one of the most devastating threats facing the United States today.
EMP stands for electromagnetic pulse, and according to a congressionally appointed threat assessment commission, it presents that rarest of all security risks: an attack that can deliver a devastating blow to our military and kill tens of millions of U.S. civilians in the bargain.
The idea is as simple as it is horrific. Explode a nuclear device in the air. The explosion sends out an EMP, which shuts down all electrical systems in the broad, multistate region below the explosion. In the modern United States, hardly anything works when the electronics go down. No transportation, no heat, no lighting, no communications . . . no nothing. Hospitals cannot function. Food, medical and other supplies are immobilized. In a matter of days, masses of people start dying.
EMP attacks could come in several varieties. There’s the so-called “Scud-in-a-bucket” scenario. Iran’s Shahab-3, an advanced scud variant, can carry a 10-kiloton warhead about 1,000 kilometers. It couldn’t reach the United States from Tehran, but it doesn’t have to. As Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) notes: “A terrorist organization might have trouble putting a nuclear warhead “on target” with a Scud, but it would be much easier to simply launch and detonate in the atmosphere. . . . Just launch a cheap missile from a freighter in international waters — al Qaeda is believed to own about 80 such vessels — and make sure to get it a few miles in the air.”
This is no mere theoretical risk. Iran has simulated an EMP attack, conducting tests in the Caspian Sea to determine whether its ballistic missiles could be detonated at a high altitude by remote control. Currently, the United States does not have adequate missile defenses to protect against this type of attack. And that’s not the only EMP threat we face.
The EMP Commission ominously warned that “China and Russia have
considered limited nuclear attack options that, unlike their Cold War plans, employ EMP as the primary or sole means of attack.” Indeed, Russian, Chinese, and Iranian military writings abound with references to EMP strikes against the United States.
To protect against ballistic missile threats, including an EMP attack, the United States needs a multi-layered missile defense system capable of shooting down missiles in all phases of flight, especially the boost or ascent phase. We don’t have one now. And under the New START treaty with Russia, currently under consideration in the Senate, we aren’t likely to be able to build one.
From its preamble through its body, protocols and annexes, New START places numerous limitations on U.S. ballistic missile defenses — limitations that would remain in force for 10 years. As early as paragraph nine of the preamble, a bias against missile defense is established. It accepts “current defenses” but prohibits defensive capabilities that have the potential to undermine the “viability and effectiveness” of Russia’s strategic nuclear force.
The Obama administration says the preamble means nothing. But, if so, why have one? Certainly the Russians don’t feel that way. When the treaty was signed, Moscow issued a statement saying it would withdraw from the pact if the United States dared upgrade its missile defenses “quantitatively or qualitatively.” So much for plans to improve our ability to intercept attacking missiles in the boost or ascent phase of their flights.
And, presidential claims to the contrary, New START holds no promise of reining in the spread of nuclear and ballistic missile technology to bad actors around the globe. On Nov. 4, President Obama urged Senate ratification of the treaty, saying it would “send a signal to the world that we’re serious about nonproliferation.” But New START imposes absolutely no constraints on the nuclear programs of Iran, North Korea, and Syria — the most significant proliferation concerns today.
Those concerns become more pressing with each passing day. According to CIA Director
Leon Panetta, Iran could have a nuclear weapon in just one or two years. By 2015 — just half-way through the New START era — it could have an ICBM able to reach the United States. And, with outside help, Tehran could move even faster.
Meanwhile, North Korea is becoming more aggressive toward South Korea, an important U.S. ally. Just this week, news came that Pyongyang is prepping for another underground nuclear test. And it continues to develop the Taepodong intercontinental ballistic missile. When fully developed, a nuclear-armed Taepodong could easily reach the United States.
As the threat of EMP attack grows, so grows the need for more robust missile defenses. An arms reduction treaty that also hampers our ability to defend against catastrophic attacks from an ever-growing number of bad guys leaves us less secure. This is no time to limit our ballistic missile defense options.