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The Real EMP Threat

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

On the front page, Monday’s New York Times provides a slanted and insidious “news” item on Newt Gingrich’s warnings about the danger of electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapons. The author of the piece, William Broad, clearly sought to convey the impression that the former House Speaker is scaremongering about a nonexistent, or at least much exaggerated, threat. This piece is seriously ill-informed, misleading, and dangerous insofar as it serves to perpetuate what is already a serious vulnerability to EMP attacks.

Among the remarkable defects in Broad’s reporting are the following:

The Times failed to mention the fact that a blue-ribbon, congressionally mandated EMP Threat Commission produced a number of studies confirming the reality of a scenario in which ballistic-missile-delivered high-altitude electromagnetic pulse attacks could occur, with “catastrophic” effects on the United States.

The Times reports that some of those who dismiss the EMP threat claim that missile defense is the answer. One cannot help but observe an irony: Sources such as Philip Coyle and the Union of Concerned Scientists — and, for that matter, William Broad and his newspaper — have been relentlessly hostile to American deployments of anti-missile systems.

Those of us who actually support U.S. missile defense believe it can and must be part of the answer — and would be, had the critics and the Obama administration not done everything possible to defund, dumb down, and otherwise constrain such systems.

The Times also promotes the meme that, even if EMP could be a threat, it isn’t at the moment, since the nations that we might worry about are at the “kindergarten stage” of obtaining the long-range missiles and nuclear arms they would need to engage in such attacks against the United States. This misses a couple of key points:

Among the nations that understand America’s vulnerability to EMP are Russia and China. They are certainly capable of exploiting it at any time.

In addition, an enemy need not have long-range missiles; short-range missiles launched off a ship would suffice to deliver a strategic EMP attack. Virtually all the world’s bad guys — including not only North Korea and Iran, but the Islamist terrorist group Hezbollah as well — have Scud missiles that could perform this mission. What is more, Iran has already test-launched ballistic missiles off of ships and launched another, the Shahab-3, in a manner that seemed to simulate a detonation at apogee. In other words, as soon as a nuclear weapon is available, Iran could be capable of waging an EMP attack.

The prospect of relatively short-range missiles being used to mount an EMP strike compounds the challenge to our modest anti-missile systems. They may or may not be able to contend with missiles launched from the sea close in to our shores. The determining factor would primarily be the location and readiness of the Navy’s missile-defense-equipped Aegis ships. Our west-coast–deployed, ground-based interceptors will be unable to do the job against short-range missiles fired off our east or Gulf coasts. (On this, see a recent article on NRO, co-authored by a former director of Pres. George H. W. Bush’s missile-defense program, Amb. Henry Cooper, and Dr. Robert Pfaltzgraff.)

Finally, the Times’s report ignores another, particularly ominous fact: Even if there were no danger of what the Obama administration calls “man-caused disasters” involving electromagnetic pulse attacks, there is the imminent problem that Mother Nature will unleash what amounts to the same thing, via cyclically occurring and intense solar flaring that is expected to occur within the next few years.

The result will be to expose large swaths of the northern hemisphere to high levels of electromagnetic energy. Missile defenses obviously provide no protection against such an effect. Only hardening of our electrical grid and other critical infrastructure will prevent a similar kind of disruption and possible destruction of both — with truly calamitous consequences for our country and its people.

In short, Newt Gingrich is absolutely right, and the New York Times shamefully wrong. The EMP threat to America is real and potentially catastrophic. Our enemies know this, and either have obtained the means to inflict such devastation or are well along in the process of acquiring them. Even if they do not execute such a strike, we must be prepared to contend with a naturally occurring phenomenon that may be every bit as devastating.

If the Times’s mischaracterization of this danger contributes to our continued vulnerability, it will represent more than journalistic malpractice. It may help exacerbate a looming disaster.

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