Unready For This Attack

April 16, 2005; Page A19
By Jon Kyl
Washington Post

Recently a Senate Judiciary subcommittee of which I am chairman held a hearing on a major threat to the American people, one that could come not only from terrorist organizations such as al Qaeda but from rogue nations such as Iran and North Korea.

An electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack on the American homeland, said one of the distinguished scientists who testified at the hearing, is one of only a few ways that the United States could be defeated by its enemies -- terrorist or otherwise. And it is probably the easiest. A single Scud missile, carrying a single nuclear weapon, detonated at the appropriate altitude, would interact with the Earth's atmosphere, producing an electromagnetic pulse radiating down to the surface at the speed of light. Depending on the location and size of the blast, the effect would be to knock out already stressed power grids and other electrical systems across much or even all of the continental United States, for months if not years.

Few if any people would die right away. But the loss of power would have a cascading effect on all aspects of U.S. society. Communication would be largely impossible. Lack of refrigeration would leave food rotting in warehouses, exacerbated by a lack of transportation as those vehicles still working simply ran out of gas (which is pumped with electricity). The inability to sanitize and distribute water would quickly threaten public health, not to mention the safety of anyone in the path of the inevitable fires, which would rage unchecked. And as we have seen in areas of natural and other disasters, such circumstances often result in a fairly rapid breakdown of social order.

American society has grown so dependent on computer and other electrical systems that we have created our own Achilles' heel of vulnerability, ironically much greater than those of other, less developed nations. When deprived of power, we are in many ways helpless, as the New York City blackout made clear. In that case, power was restored quickly because adjacent areas could provide help. But a large-scale burnout caused by a broad EMP attack would create a much more difficult situation. Not only would there be nobody nearby to help, it could take years to replace destroyed equipment.

Transformers for regional substations, for example, are massive pieces of equipment that are no longer manufactured in the United States and typically take more than a year to build. In the words of another witness at the hearing, "The longer the basic outage, the more problematic and uncertain the recovery of any [infrastructure system] will be. It is possible -- indeed, seemingly likely -- for sufficiently severe functional outages to become mutually reinforcing, until a point at which the degradation . . . could have irreversible effects on the country's ability to support any large fraction of its present human population." Those who survived, he said, would find themselves transported back to the United States of the 1880s.

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