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Our enemies could use nuclear weapons to create EMP attack

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While the threat of aggression by North Korea or the Islamic State lingers, the basic existence of our civilization is not threatened as much as it has been in prior generations.

During the Cold War the Soviet Union was poised to launch thousands of nuclear weapons at a moment’s notice toward our homeland and our allies. Combined with our massive retaliation, this could have spelled the end of modern life. We now know that several close calls nearly resulted in this unthinkable destruction of human civilization.

{mosads}While we are living in a time of relative peace, it is the job of the government to assess various threats and make plans to prepare for them. One potential threat currently being debated is the risk of an attack by a high-altitude electromagnetic pulse (HEMP). In fact, on Jan. 30, the House Homeland Security Committee is going to discuss the risks posed by such an attack.


Essentially, a HEMP is the use of a nuclear device exploded high above the earth that does not destroy targets and kill people with blast, fire and radiation. Instead, the HEMP attack sends a powerful burst of electromagnetic energy towards its target that has the capability to destroy electrical systems and high technology microcircuits, such as electricity transmission lines. A HEMP attack could take down the electric grid that we all use to power our homes, businesses and nearly every aspect of modern life.

Another concern with a HEMP attack is that it could be used to partially disable the U.S. military’s ability to respond to aggression. The military is keenly aware of this potential threat, and has taken steps to protect many of its core functions, such as the command of our nuclear arsenal. The use of smaller electromagnetic pulse weapons on the battlefield could result in problems for commanders reliant on technology to control troops, aircraft and naval vessels, but it would be limited in size and scope, compared to a HEMP.

However, rather than just exploring the dangers posed by a HEMP, I believe we should be asking ourselves what is the actual risk of a HEMP attack and whether it makes sense to devote precious resources away from other more likely threats such as terrorist attacks — like what we saw on Sept. 11.

Yes, North Korea possesses Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) and nuclear weapons, and has even recently threatened a HEMP attack against the United States. But let’s be clear, a HEMP attack is a very sophisticated use of a nuclear weapon and it is doubtful that the North Koreans possess the technology to successfully achieve such a result.

Also, one would wonder why the North Koreans would fire a nuclear tipped ICBM at the United States and use it not to destroy a city, but rather as an HEMP. This would be a foolish decision on their part, because before that ICBM arrived over the United States, our forces would almost certainly respond with the use of nuclear weapons designed to destroy North Korea entirely.

The Russians, or another hostile country, could fire a HEMP at us, but that seems unlikely. After all, the Kremlin has had much success undermining our nation with attacks sent over the Internet and Facebook — why risk a nuclear exchange when they could disable our infrastructure from a computer terminal in Moscow?

A recent report from the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) also found that the risks associated with a HEMP on our electrical grid would be regional, and not destroy the entire nation’s electrical infrastructure. Their research reflects what I understand about the capabilities of a HEMP attack.

Finally, we live in a world where we must constantly make threat assessments, and devote time and resources where they are most likely to protect the homeland and save lives. In a world with unlimited resources, the nation would be better off with total protection against the use of a HEMP. But that’s not our reality and dedicating the resources needed to “eliminate” the HEMP threat will undoubtedly leave us more vulnerable to other kinds of attacks that are much more likely to occur.

Threats involving terrorists launching ICMBs that then send electromagnetic bursts from space easily captivate our imagination, but I hope that our policymakers and national security professionals remain focused on risks that are a more prudent use of our finite resources.

Former Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas) served as Chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence from 2007 – 2011. 


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