Our nation and the Department of Homeland
Security are rightly concerned about the threat from nuclear terrorism.
Extraordinary efforts are under way to detect and prevent a terrorist operation
from smuggling a nuclear weapon into a U.S. city or seaport. New technologies,
such as muon tomography, are being developed to scan the interior of containers
and other objects for nuclear weapon materials.
Yet there is another nuclear threat to the
U.S. homeland that could be posed by terrorists that is much less well-known -
to our collective peril. This other nuclear threat is just as plausible and
equally credible when compared to the threat of a weapon smuggled into the United States. Compared to a smuggled nuclear weapon
detonated in New York, D.C. or Los Angeles, this other nuclear threat is
potentially far more catastrophic: instead of a single city, it could threaten
the entire nation's survival.
But the DHS and their institutional advisers
are so fixated on the "conventional wisdom" of the threat from a
nuclear bomb smuggled in that they are doing far too little to detect and
prevent nuclear terrorists and their state sponsors from executing an
electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack on the United States.
A high-altitude EMP results from the
detonation of a nuclear warhead at altitudes above 25 miles over the Earth's
surface, and covers the area within line-of-sight from the bomb. The immediate
effects of EMP are disruption of, and damage to, electronic systems that are
indispensable to the operation of critical national infrastructures - the
electric power grid, wired and cell telephone systems, fuel handling, land and
air transportation, government operations, banking and finance, food storage
and distribution, and water treatment and supply - that sustain our economy,
military power and civilian population.
Our vulnerability to EMP attack is increasing
daily as our dependence on electronics continues to grow. The impact of EMP is
asymmetric in relation to potential antagonists who are less dependent on
The recovery from EMP attack of any one of
the key national infrastructures is dependent on the recovery of others, in the
same way their normal operations are interdependent. The longer the outage, the
more problematic and uncertain the recovery would be. It is possible for the
functional outages to become mutually reinforcing, until at some point the
degradation of critical national infrastructures could irreversibly affect U.S.
ability to support its population and sustain its role in the world.
Several potential adversaries have the knowledge
and the resources to attack the United States with a high-altitude
nuclear-weapon-generated EMP, and others appear to be pursuing efforts to
obtain that capability. A determined adversary could carry out an EMP attack
without having the high level of technical sophistication of a major nation.
One scenario of special concern is an EMP
attack against the United States launched from an ordinary freighter off the
U.S. coast using a short- or medium-range missile to loft a nuclear warhead to
high-altitude (such missiles are readily available on the world armaments black
Terrorists sponsored by a hostile state could
try to launch such an attack without revealing the sponsors' identity. Iran,
the world's leading sponsor of international terrorism, has practiced launching
a mobile ballistic missile from a vessel in the Caspian Sea. Iran has also
tested high-altitude explosions of its Shahab-III ballistic missile, a test
mode consistent with EMP attack. Iranian military writings explicitly discuss a
nuclear EMP attack that would destroy the United States. Connecting the dots is
Designs for missile-launched nuclear weapons
may have been illicitly trafficked for at least a quarter-century. Recently, as
reported in the press, United Nations investigators found the design for an
advanced nuclear weapon, miniaturized to fit ballistic missiles currently in
the inventory of Iran, North Korea and other potentially hostile states, was in
the possession of Swiss nationals affiliated with the A.Q. Khan nuclear
This suggests that additional nuclear weapon
designs may also be in the possession of hostile states and of states that
sponsor terrorism. However, even a primitive, low-yield modern day
"entry-level" nuclear weapon could be used to conduct an EMP attack.
Why is the Department of Homeland Security
moving aggressively to protect America's cities and seaports from nuclear
terrorists smuggling in a nuclear weapon but overlooking the possibility of EMP
attack? Their assumption is that if terrorists acquire a nuclear weapon, they
would certainly prefer to detonate it in a major metropolitan area, rather than
attack an entire seaboard or even the whole nation with EMP.
The assumption that a nuclear weapon would be
used against us in only one way is unwarranted, as an EMP attack offers some
significant advantages over smuggling.
Smuggling a nuclear weapon into a U.S. city
is risky, and becoming increasingly so, as homeland security measures improve.
Significant investments are being made in measures to defeat such attempts. In
contrast, an EMP attack using a missile launched from a ship outside
U.S.-controlled waters eliminates most of the operational hazards of smuggling
a nuclear weapon into a U.S. port or city. Moreover, it offers less opportunity
for detection, less risk of weapon seizure, less risk of crewmember defection,
greater difficulty for the United States in conducting forensic analysis to
determine who sponsored the attack, less certainty of prompt retaliation and
greater long-term, potentially catastrophic consequences for the nation.
Indeed, EMP attack is the only nuclear option
where one or two nuclear weapons could gravely damage the entire United States,
and give terrorism a large-scale victory from attacking the U.S.
While an EMP attack on our critical national
infrastructures is one of the most serious terrorist and hostile state threats
facing our nation, the United States need not be vulnerable to the catastrophic
consequences of such an attack. The nation owes the recent progress made toward
addressing EMP to the leadership of Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, Maryland
Republican, and one of the few scientists in Congress, whose concern led him to
initiate legislation that established the commission that I chair to address
the EMP threat.
The EMP Commission has proposed
recommendations that, over a five-year period, at reasonable cost, would enable
the United States to prepare, train, protect and recover its infrastructures
against EMP attack. This same plan would also help protect critical national
infrastructures from other threats, including cyber attack, sabotage and
natural disasters such as very large geomagnetic storms and major hurricanes.
Continued failure to protect the United
States from EMP invites attack.
More information, including the EMP
Commission's report on the EMP threat to the Critical National Infrastructure,
can be found at www.Empcommission.org.