F.R. Duplantier reporting Behind The Headlines
Week of:
July 9, 2000
Threat From Electromagnetic Pulse

F.R. Duplantier

by: F.R. Duplantier

A nuclear bomb exploded high above the United States could disrupt our entire electrical system and bring all productive services to a halt.

Jack Spencer of the Heritage Foundation warns of "a different kind of nuclear threat that can instantaneously destroy power grids, electronic systems, and communications along an entire coast but spare people. This destruction," he explains, "would result from the split-second release of a high-energy electromagnetic pulse (EMP) after a nuclear bomb is detonated miles above the earth and outside the atmophere. Within a week of the blast," Spencer forecasts, "the disruption of food and water supplies and health care caused by the shutdown of transportation, computers, networks, electronic equipment, and communication systems would have serious consequences for millions of people. Recovering from such an attack," he emphasizes, "could take years."

Our government has known about the devastating potential of an electromagnetic pulse for four decades. "The U.S. military first witnessed this phenomenon," Spencer remarks, "after a series of high-altitude nuclear tests in the Johnston atoll in 1962 generated a disruption in electronic equipment in Hawaii, nearly 1,000 miles away. According to reports, the EMP interrupted radio broadcasts, caused streetlights to malfunction and burglar alarms to sound, and resulted in electronic failures across the islands despite their great distance from the test site."

Despite four decades of EMP awareness, the United States has virtually no defense against an electromagnetic pulse attack. "Little has been done to protect electrical systems from this threat," Spencer affirms. "During the Cold War," he notes, "only the Soviet Union had the ability to mount an EMP attack against the United States, and . . . the result would have been nuclear war. It made no sense to spend money to protect civil infrastructure from an electromagnetic pulse" when nuclear devastation loomed.

The days of mutually assured destruction are gone, however. "Today," Spencer warns, "because of the spread of nuclear technology and ballistic missiles, the threat of a high-altitude EMP explosion over the United States or a battlefield is increasing. Indeed, America's reliance on advanced electronics makes its systems more vulnerable to such a blast than those of hostile states that might choose to use an EMP." Spencer says "the most prudent method of protecting America from EMP attacks would be a missile defense system that could destroy a ballistic missile before it reaches U.S. airspace."

It's time to resurrect Ronald Reagan's famous challenge: Are you better off now than you were four years ago? Instead of considering the question from an economic perspective, however, as we did in 1980 (answering with a resounding "No!"), we should confront that same question today from the standpoint of national security. Are we better off now -- safer, at home and abroad -- than we were eight years ago? The answer is just as obvious today as it was twenty years ago. To ask the question is to answer it. In four years Jimmy Carter ravaged our economy. In eight years Bill Clinton has reduced our defense and diplomatic corps to a shadow of their former selves. The "peace dividend" bequeathed to him by Reagan and Bush has been squandered. What a legacy!

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