Is electromagnetic pulse a real threat to American security? On the heels of recent Republican primary debates, the danger to U.S. electronics and infrastructure posed by a high-altitude nuclear blast suddenly has emerged as a campaign issue. So has concerted opposition to it, with both liberal and conservative skeptics ridiculing the idea as an overblown, even fabricated, distraction. Yet there is ample evidence that the danger is both clear and present. Far and away the most authoritative assessment in this regard is that of the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States From Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack, colloquially known as the EMP Commission. That blue-ribbon panel, convened by Congress a decade ago, outlined the nature of the challenge as follows:
"EMP is one of a small number of threats that can hold our society at risk of catastrophic consequences. EMP will cover the wide geographic region within line of sight to the nuclear weapon. It has the capability to produce significant damage to critical infrastructures and thus to the very fabric of U.S. society, as well as to the ability of the United States and Western nations to project influence and military power."
America's vulnerability to such an attack is growing. As the EMP Commission explained, our heavy - and mounting - dependence on high technology, from cellphones to laptops to GPS, makes the United States disproportionately vulnerable to the disruption that would result from an EMP event. The commission concluded its work in 2004 with a dire warning: "The current vulnerability of our critical infrastructures can both invite and reward attack if not corrected."
This fact has not gone unnoticed. A number of rogue states and strategic competitors are actively investing in the development of precisely this sort of capability. Thus, Russia, which during the Cold War carried out extensive experiments relating to EMP, has actively contemplated its use on a number of occasions since the Soviet collapse. China, too, is investing in EMP weapons as part of its "assassin's mace" - an asymmetric military arsenal through which Beijing seeks to challenge U.S. primacy in the Asia-Pacific region. North Korea, for its part, is believed to have tested a "super-EMP" weapon powerful enough to create massive disruption in the continental United States back in 2009. Iran, which carried out EMP-related ballistic-missile tests in the Caspian Sea in the late 1990s, has since publicly explored the possibility of using such a capability against America.
The United States, meanwhile, is only marginally closer to remedying its vulnerability to EMP than it was in 2004. The George W. Bush administration did not take decisive action to systematically harden critical infrastructure and assets against electromagnetic pulse. Neither has Team Obama, which has ignored the issue as a matter of public policy almost entirely since taking office. Indeed, it has made America's vulnerability worse because its September 2009 missile defense plan pushes off serious additional investments in technologies of the kind that could help neutralize a nuclear EMP attack on the U.S. homeland until 2016 - or significantly later.
Congress at least has attempted to do more. A number of lawmakers, notably Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, Maryland Republican, and Rep. Trent Franks, Arizona Republican, have emerged as vocal advocates of robust defense against EMP, and a legislative vehicle - the SHIELD Act - even has been crafted for it. But the SHIELD Act has languished in the House since being introduced back in February, and no fresh movement is on the horizon. Defense against electromagnetic pulse, in other words, was and remains an unfunded mandate.
To be sure, the likelihood of an EMP attack on America remains remote. Conventional terrorism, even of the large-scale variety, is considerably more likely, and a biological or chemical event is marginally more so. Yet, if an EMP incident does occur, the costs would be astronomical. Commission Chairman William Graham, a former science adviser to President Reagan, told the House Armed Services Committee in 2008 that an EMP attack had the potential to devastate the country's electronic infrastructure to such a degree that it would no longer be capable of sustaining the country's population.
Such a cataclysm, however, can be prevented with the necessary investments in hardening, infrastructure protection and redundancy in key sectors (from finance to electricity to water supply). As Mr. Graham told lawmakers at the time, "Correction is feasible and well within the nation's means and resources to accomplish."
That the U.S. government has not yet done so amounts to a serious dereliction of duty. The next U.S. president will need to recognize this dangerous vulnerability - and move decisively to address it.