The first-strike possibility troubling officials is not just the intercontinental ballistic missile threat exhaustively examined in the news but an assault from a new breed of third-generation nuclear and electronic weapons. A nation the size of China or a small terrorist cell can seriously damage the U.S. infrastructure by a weapon called electromagnetic pulse (EMP).
An EMP is a sudden, high-intensity burst of broad-band electromagnetic radiation. The pulse enters all unprotected electrical circuits within range of the blast, causing damage ranging from circuit malfunction to meltdown of conductor devices.
The U.S. military first witnessed an EMP phenomenon in the 1960s after several high-altitude nuclear tests were conducted in the Johnston Atoll. The high-altitude explosion disrupted electronic-transistor equipment in Hawaii and other surrounding islands up to nearly 1,000 miles away. Some EMP bursts can be nuclear enhanced to affect a large area, yet other non-nuclear EMP devices can be assembled without the same technical know-how and be equally as devastating to transistor-based equipment. However, the latter devices affect a smaller target vicinity more surgically and with less of a trail. Astoundingly, designs for these devices are accessible via the Internet. Thus, the broader implications of an EMP attack on a technologically advanced nation such as the United States are unprecedented.
Rep. Curt Weldon, Pennsylvania Republican, chairmen of the Military Research and Development subcommittee of the House Arms Services Committee, said on July 27, "An EMP attack is the next major U.S. security concern for the 21st century."
This EMP assault could be delivered in numerous ways, including ICBMs, cruise missiles (which we used against Iraq in the Persian Gulf war), satellite-launched pulses and even hand-carried devices. Testimony was given before the House National Security Committee in 1997 that even "a modest EMP blast detonated by a satellite launch or ICBM 30 miles above Nebraska would leave a footprint of electronic failure across the entire U.S., parts of Canada, and Mexico," causing all types of computer circuitry to literally fry.
However, the more likely scenario could by initiated by a single individual with a hand-carried EMP device in a major urban area such as New York City, much like in the 1998 movie "The Peacemaker." A nuclear-generated EMP, from a building 10 stories high, could black out an entire city, causing trillions of dollars in economic loss and damage instantly. Damage would also be amplified by a cascading socio-political and security implosion.
The U.S. military-industrial complex is nearly as vulnerable to an EMP attack as the civilian sector. Because of defense-budget constraints, the military has relaxed specifications on "hardening" weapons components for protection. Col. Richard Skinner, director of the Pentagon's Command, Control, Communications and Space Systems, affirmed: "EMP weapons would have a serious impact to military command and control systems." The Clinton administration also expressed concern over the vulnerability of critical parts of the military and civilian infrastructure through executive orders and White House commissions. Yet a top Clinton aide said: "The administration [is] not considering any special measures to counter such a threat."
Currently, the United States, Russia, and China are the only countries with advanced EMP technology. The Russians have a dozen Soviet SS-18 ICBMs that have a primary function and military role of conducting a severe EMP attack. The Chinese also have been developing an Earth-orbiting satellite utilizing EMP technology to disable U.S. satellites, as well as interfere with ground infrastructure. Russia and China are also large proliferators of cutting-edge technology and weaponry to rogue nations. Thus, "states of concern" such as North Korea, Iran, and Iraq could acquire advanced EMP technology.
However, the most serious threat could come from several anti-American, anti-Western terrorist organizations such as al-Qaida (Osama bin Ladin's cadre) and the Iranian-supported Hezbollah that are difficult to monitor. Both could pose serious threats to the United States if they ever employed EMP weapons.
Since past administrations have done very little to protect the United States from an EMP threat and continually have chosen to pursue a policy of downplaying it, Congress and the next administration must take corrective action immediately. Mr. Weldon said that the United States "must do more to protect ourselves from an EMP attack on our military and civilian sectors now."
To buttress his point, Sun Tzu, the great Chinese warrior-philosopher circa 450 B.C., and author of "The Art of War" wrote, "The rule of military operations is not to count on opponents not coming, but to rely on having ways of dealing with them; not to count on opponents not attacking, but to rely on having what cannot be attacked."
The United States must also formulate a policy on surgical military retaliation if an EMP attack were to occur. This is because the mutually assured destruction deterrence that was effective during the Cold War may be obsolete in this scenario, as the perpetrator may be stateless. Accordingly, retaliation will probably fall on the special operations community. Detailed planning and training now will prevent overreaction in the future.
U.S. strategists must shy away from 1930s French Maginot Line rationalizations and prepare for the more real unconventional tactics and weaponry of New Age enemies. This false sense of security regarding an EMP attack must be addressed. In the end, U.S. national defense will only be as potent as our ability to keep up with the ever-changing dynamics and intrinsic relationship of warfare and progressive technology.
Steven L. Katz is a research assistant on defense issues at the National Defense Council Foundation in Alexandria. F. Andy Messing Jr., a retired Special Forces major, is executive director of NDCF.