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The EMP Threat: Lots of Hype, Little Traction

In September, a network of hawks from the Christian Right to the neocons held a conference aimed at raising alarm about a purely theoretical threat. Titled “Protecting America Against Permanent Continental Shutdown From Electromagnetic Pulse," the conference featured speakers who argued that "rogue" states like North Korea and Iran, as well as terrorists, are poised to wreak havoc on the United States by blasting nuclear weapons above the country, releasing an electromagnetic pulse that would shut down much of its infrastructure. That there is no evidence of EMP’s ostensibly far-reaching impact—or that anyone has developed EMP-optimized weapons—has not stopped hawks from making outlandish claims, like that within a year of an EMP attack, 9 out of 10 Americans would be dead. Despite the hype, it appears that only zealots take the threat seriously.

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Last month, Christian conservatives’ favorite presidential hopeful, Mike Huckabee, headlined a national conference in Niagara, New York, titled “Protecting America Against Permanent Continental Shutdown From Electromagnetic Pulse.”

Sponsored by EMPACT America, an organization allied with several leading rightwing advocacy groups, the conference drew some 800 people who came to hear about what organizers regard as a growing threat to the United States: an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack that allegedly could destroy much of the country’s infrastructure and send it back to the 19th century. The conference represents the latest step in the effort to hype the supposed menace of EMP, as well as yet another angle on the purportedly diverse array of threats posed by “rogue” states like Iran and North Korea and transnational terrorist groups.

Also addressing the conference via video feed were Republican heavyhitter Newt Gingrich and conservative Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD), who has been one of Congress’ loudest advocates of EMP awareness.

Despite the conference’s association with prominent Republicans, however, this quixotic threat-mongering project has yet to gain traction with the broader public.


Origins of the EMP Campaign

Electromagnetic pulse results from a nuclear detonation, and under certain conditions, it can damage electronic equipment in a wide radius from the blast. The EMP effect was first discovered in 1962, when an aerial nuclear weapon test over the Pacific Ocean affected electronic equipment in Hawaii. High-altitude nuclear detonations release gamma rays, which interact with air molecules to create an energy field that disrupts electronic equipment. At a high enough altitude, an EMP could affect a wide area. The resultant damage, it was believed, might in wartime sever command and communication links between military assets, as well as do significant harm to the civilian infrastructure and economy. The U.S. military took the threat of EMP seriously, and began in the 1960s to harden and shield its electronic equipment from such a blast.

Along with their Soviet and Chinese counterparts, U.S. military planners and scientists studied the potential dangers—and opportunities—presented by EMP. However, since only one nation, the United States, has ever attacked another country with an atomic bomb, the precise extent of EMP’s power to damage electronic-dependent infrastructures is not fully understood. Testing bans have also prevented the established nuclear powers from fully investigating the EMP effect (prompting some EMP awareness activists to argue for a resumption of nuclear testing).

Attention to EMPs waned with the end of the Cold War, and the apparent reduction of the Soviet nuclear threat. However, some influential figures still tried to keep the flame alive. In 1997, Rep. Curt Weldon (R-PA) convened a Congressional hearing on the threat that an EMP attack presented to the United States. Minimal action resulted, but the 9/11 attacks helped spark a new wave of interest, and in 2001 Rep. Bartlett led a Congressional effort to create the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse Attack. In 2004, the commission’s first report on EMP preparedness concluded that the United States was vulnerable, and that the government should take steps to protect commercial electronics and expand missile defense.


A Network of Hawks

The EMPACT conference revealed the diverse array of rightwing factions that have united behind the effort to promote the EMP threat thesis. For example, several panels at the conference were led by missile-defense enthusiasts closely associated with neoconservatism, notably Cliff May of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD) and Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy. Other presenters with a rightist ideological bent included Brigitte Gabriel and Guy Rodgers from Act for America, a hardline advocacy group preoccupied with “Islamofascism”; and Larry Greenfield from the rightwing Claremont Institute, which promotes “multi-layered” missile defense via a website called MissileThreat.com.

The EMPACT conference also included a Christian Zionist element. Larry Greenfield, who moderated a panel on Iran and North Korea, sits on the board of Israel-Christian Nexus, which unites Jewish and Christian Zionists in support of Israel. [1] The controversial pastor John Hagee is a member of the group’s board of advisors. May and Gaffney spoke about Iran and the EMP threat at the 2008 convention of Christians United for Israel (CUFI), the influential Christian Zionist group headed by Hagee. [2]

Gingrich, now a fellow at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute, has stood at the vanguard of the EMP awareness movement. In his video address to the conference, Gingrich said, “I’ve long believed that EMP or electromagnetic pulse may be the greatest strategic threat we face, because without adequate preparation, its impact would be so horrifying, that we would basically lose our civilization in a matter of seconds.” [3]

The Heritage Foundation has also advocated EMP awareness, and one of its homeland security experts was a panelist at the Niagara conference. It has published numerous articles linking the danger of EMP attacks with the need to beef up missile defense, something it has avidly pushed for many years. Two Heritage writers, Jena Baker McNeill and James Jay Carafano, have proposed an EMP Recognition Day to be held on March 23. On this day, Congress would work without electricity, electronic equipment, and food in order to simulate the effects of an electromagnetic pulse attack. The proposed day of recognition falls on the anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s March 23, 1983 announcement of the “star wars” Strategic Defense Initiative. According to Heritage, EMP Recognition Day would further the goal of establishing missile defense, which it claims “will allow our nation to intercept and destroy a missile bound for the United States regardless of the launch point or whether the attack is aimed at destroying a city or engaging in an EMP attack on the nation.” [4]

Op-eds in favor of EMP awareness have appeared in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and a host of conservative publications. In a Post op-ed on March 4, 2007, novelist Mark Helprin argued that the People’s Republic of China might, in an emergency, detonate several high-megaton warheads in the atmosphere over the United States, destroying the country’ electronic infrastructure. U.S. response would be toothless, Helprin argued, because the United States would be reluctant to launch a nuclear counterstrike, and retaliating with an EMP attack would be useless since “China is not as technically dependent as we.” [5] Helprin advocates presumptive nuclear superiority as a solution, although he doesn’t explain how such superiority would prevent such a relatively low-cost nuclear strategy. Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA), and Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) have also weighed in with op-eds in favor of greater EMP preparedness.

The EMPACT conference represents a culmination of sorts for the EMP awareness movement. In his keynote speech, Mike Huckabee warned against complaisance. “We should not minimize the threat of EMP,” he said. “There’s always going to be cynics. There were cynics who didn’t believe the Japanese were a threat (to attack Pearl Harbor) and there were cynics who didn’t believe radical Islam was a threat.” Huckabee said he agreed with Fritz Ermarth, former chair of the National Intelligence Council, who the day before had told conference attendees that an EMP attack would most likely come from Iran, North Korea, or an Al Qaeda-type terrorist network. Huckabee also compared the EMP’s effects on the electric grid to that of a particularly bad ice storm. [6]

Longtime EMP awareness advocate and Iran hawk Frank Gaffney made the most inflated statement during the conference, arguing that “within a year of that attack, nine out of ten Americans would be dead. … That would be a world without America, as a practical matter. And that is exactly what I believe the Iranians are working towards.” [7] Gaffney’s source for the 90 percent kill rate might have been William Graham, chair of the EMP Commission, who told the House Armed Services Committee last year that an EMP attack could so thoroughly damage the country’s electronic infrastructure—including its transportation and food and water delivery systems—that within a year only about 30 million Americans would still be alive. [8]


Alarmist Predictions

Uncertainty regarding the effect of EMP has fed alarmist predictions about overall impact. For example, although there is agreement that high-altitude nuclear detonations can cause widespread damage to the electric grid and to electronic and digital equipment, there is little agreement on the size of the nuclear weapon necessary to cause significant, long-lasting destruction. The test that damaged electronic equipment in Hawaii measured 1.4 megatons, roughly one hundred times larger than the most powerful nuclear test attributed to North Korea. However, numerous EMP awareness advocates (and some members of the EMP Commission) have argued that a much smaller warhead could destroy electronics from the East Coast to the Midwest. In the absence of conclusive research and testing, the exact size of the explosion necessary to create a devastating EMP remains unknown.

Many weapons experts doubt that an EMP attack could cause lasting or irreversible damage. Stephen Younger, former senior fellow at Los Alamos National Lab and director at the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, argues that while an EMP might create problems in the short term, it is unlikely to cause long-term devastation.

Similarly, observers have questioned the capacity of North Korea or Iran, much less a terrorist organization, to develop a warhead sophisticated enough to cause widespread EMP damage. Nick Schwellenbach, a former researcher at Project on Government Oversight, suggests that the idea of a small, EMP-optimized warhead is absurd: “You have a lot of points of failure in order to get to a warhead that is EMP optimized. … [Y]ou need specialized machine tools, you need capital, but to create a weapon that creates the secondary effect that you’re talking about, that’s something even we can’t do right now.” [9]

At this point, neither Iran nor North Korea possess a missile capable of delivering an EMP attack against the United States. However, Graham, as well as Peter Pry, the president of EMPACT America and former senior staffer with the EMP Commission, have argued in Congressional testimony that Iran could launch a medium-range ballistic missile from an offshore barge or freighter, thus giving the Islamic Republic first-strike capability. Moreover, EMP awareness advocates have argued that if terrorists acquired a ballistic missile and a nuclear warhead, they could conduct the same kind of offshore attack.

The strategic logic of an EMP attack on the United States remains unclear, and skeptics’ doubts mostly focus on the strategic implausibility of such attacks. Under the most aggressive assumptions, a first-strike EMP attack might cause widespread economic damage. However, under no scenario would the attack eliminate the ability of the U.S. military to respond. Al Mauroni of the defense contractor Science Applications International Corporation argues that “the national command authority would be able to identify where a missile came from, determine the effects of such an attack, and respond with nuclear weapons—not necessarily just for an EMP effect—against the adversarial nation.” [10]

Former Rep. Curt Weldon, who gave the EMPACT conference’s opening address, argued back in 1997 that it would be politically difficult for the United States to respond to such an attack, as no cities will have been destroyed and no lives lost (at least initially), a claim which other EMP awareness advocates have echoed. However, that the United States would not respond with overwhelming military force to a successful EMP attack strains credulity.

EMP awareness advocates have thus far failed to offer a convincing motive for why a rogue state would use its scarce nuclear weapons in a first-strike that might not work, and that would in any case leave the attacker open to a devastating counterattack. EMP as a second-strike deterrent fares no better; the strategic logic of deterrence demands that any retaliatory strike be as lethal and as secure as possible, and it is highly unlikely that any state would rely on unproven weaponry of uncertain lethality to dissuade an attack. While terrorists may have different incentives, the road to a functional EMP capability is much rockier for a terrorist group than a state. At a minimum, the terrorist group would need to acquire and master the operation of a nuclear weapon and a ballistic missile, two steps further than any known group has gone.


Ulterior Motives

The central political purpose of the EMP awareness movement appears to be advancement of the cause of missile defense. The most extreme estimates of the effect of EMP restore the Cold War-era existential fears of nuclear war. Schwellenbach argues “what’s driving it is the political global context—it gives the right an issue that allows them to justify hawkish behavior. It is almost a perfect solution to any argument against missile defense—North Korea and Iran.” [11]

The 90 percent casualty estimate advanced by EMP awareness advocates hypes the notion that the United States faces potential annihilation at the hands of its enemies, and goes a step farther: even the smallest nuclear power can destroy the United States with a small number of warheads. This, in turn, reaffirms the need for both a secure missile defense shield (including space-based interceptor weapons) and a grand strategy of preventive war against potential nuclear and ballistic missile proliferators. Almost all EMP awareness advocates—including Gaffney, Gingrich, and Huckabee—call for increased spending on missile defense. Gaffney and Gingrich have also called for a “robust” policy of preemptive war, including attacks on Iranian and North Korean missiles on their launching pads.

The fact that EMP is poorly researched and not well understood works in its favor as a scare tactic. Since evidence of EMP’s allegedly lasting impact is purely theoretical, EMP awareness advocates can make outlandish claims regarding the threat that even the smallest nuclear arsenal poses. They can also point to allegations made by the official EMP Commission, ignoring the fact that many outside experts dispute its findings.

The Niagara conference’s emphasis on strategic and policy considerations shows that alarmist predictions about EMP attacks serve as fodder for promotion of a larger nuclear weapons stockpile, for missile defense, and for preventive attacks.


Little Traction

Despite the effort that conservatives have devoted to this cause, it appears to have gained little traction in the mainstream media. The New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, Fox News, and other major television news organizations declined to cover the EMPACT conference. Indeed, even the neoconservative Weekly Standard, which seems perpetually on the lookout for ways to plug purported existential threats to the homeland, stayed away from Niagara. One Standard editor said in an interview with the author, “I don’t go for that EMP stuff. Kind of more interested in dangerous scenarios that might actually happen.” [12]

Nevertheless, the presence of Huckabee and Gingrich at the conference indicates that some major Republican Party politicians see EMP either as a splendid political opportunity, or as their latest conservative litmus test.

Robert Farley is an assistant professor at the University of Kentucky’s Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce and a contributor to PRA’s Right Web (https://rightweb.irc-online.org/).


1. www.claremont.org
2. Ali Gharib, “Iran in the Spotlight at Christian Zionist Confab,” Inter Press Service, July 26, 2008.
3. YouTube Video
4. www.heritage.org
5. www.washingtonpost.com
6. Rick Pfeiffer, “Huckabee’s Warning Pulses at Conference,” The Tonawanda News
7. wonkroom.thinkprogress.org
8. John M. Doyle, “Commission says government lacks resources to manage EMPs,” Aerospace Daily & Defense Report, July 16, 2008
9. Interview w/author
10. E-interview with author
11. Interview with author
12. Interview with author

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