Though the threat of an electromagnetic pulse weapon is part of the popular imagination, many don’t take it seriously. But what would happen if a rogue state, such as North Korea, attempted to use an EMP attack on the United States?
This time on FS Insider, we spoke with Dr. Peter Vincent Pry, a member of the Congressional EMP Commission and an expert on EMP weapons, about what the threat really is, and what we can do about it.
For related podcast, see Dr. Peter Vincent Pry on Threat of North Korean EMP Attack
Six years before the Congressional EMP Commission was established, the Norwegians conducted a missile test to explore the aurora borealis, but the launch wasn’t communicated to the Russians and the country's missile defenses were put on high alert.
“That was January 25, 1995. Congress didn’t understand why Russia would react that way to a single missile. The reason was because in their plans, they were prepared to attack us with an EMP launched by a single missile,” Pry said.
Most members of Congress hadn’t even heard of an EMP weapon then. But this wasn’t the only event that hinted at rival nations’ knowledge of EMP weapons or their plans to use these types of attacks.
In fact, during the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999, a congressional delegation sent to meet with the Russian Duma was told that even though Russia was a basket case, they still had the capability to prevent NATO’s actions and win a war with them using an EMP weapon.
That threat “moved everybody to unanimously support the establishment of the EMP Commission,” Pry stated.
The EMP Commission’s Advice Goes Unheeded
In 2001, the Congressional EMP Commission was established, and Pry left the House Armed Services Committee to join. The commission specifically examined the possibility of rogue nations such as Iran and North Korea developing EMP weapons to attack the US.
“In fact, it was the main reason they were after EMP weapons,” he said. “It was the only way, with one nuclear weapon and a primitive missile, they could actually win a war against the United States.”
The Commission made numerous recommendations, but after 5 years of hearings, nothing was done to protect the electric grid.
Also, the Commission was proven correct about the North Korean nuclear threat last summer, when the North demonstrated its missile technology to the world.
“We warned them that North Korea probably has super EMP weapons,” Pry said. “On September 2, North Korea surprised everybody but the EMP Commission by testing a hydrogen bomb, which they declared had a setting for a super powerful EMP Attack.”
Who Opposes EMP Defense?
Part of the pushback is that it’s a theoretical threat, Pry noted. There are a variety of interests who portray the EMP Commission as intent upon launching preemptive wars and building unnecessary defenses to protect against what amounts to an imaginary threat.
One critic, Jeffrey Lewis, who wrote, “The EMPire Strikes Back: Electromagnetic pulse is the conservative fetish that just won't die,” is one such example.
In his article, Lewis discusses an EMP weapon test called Starfish Prime that occurred in 1962, which he argues was not nearly as dramatic as the EMP Commission claims.
Here's what Lewis wrote:
EMP threat-mongers sometimes dramatically exaggerate the effects of Starfish Prime. For example, Lowell Wood, later a member of the EMP Commission, described the impact of Starfish Prime to Congress in plainly apocalyptic terms. Starfish Prime, he said, "very unexpectedly turned off the lights over a few million square miles in the mid-Pacific. This EMP also shut down radio stations, turned off cars, burned out telephone systems, and wreaked other mischief throughout the Hawaiian Islands, nearly 1,000 miles distant from ground zero." [...]
Starfish Prime was bad, but it was not nearly so dramatic as Wood claimed. In fact, lots of people turned out to watch the explosion from hotels and beaches in Hawaii, including reporters sent to cover it [...]
Starfish Prime did do some damage, even if Waikiki’s luau schedule was uninterrupted. The electromagnetic pulse and other effects probably killed off two or three satellites in orbit, which was bad enough. The explosion may also have damaged some telephone equipment, but there were no telephone outages.
Though it’s true the test didn’t cause major damage to the Hawaiian Islands, Pry stated, the test was never conducted as a means of putting Hawaii in danger. In fact, it was conducted nearly 800 miles away from Hawaii in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. That said, if an EMP weapon was detonated directly over a city or, in this case, mainland Hawaii, the results “would be catastrophic,” Pry said.
Lewis simply doesn't have his facts correct and has an incorrect reading of the situation, Pry argued, also questioning whether political science professors should be regarded as experts on electromagnetism and nuclear physics.
North Korean EMP Is a Serious Threat
In his recent congressional testimony, Pry focused on what he considers to be an existential threat from North Korea.
“That is what worries me most,” he said. “The North Koreans have two satellites orbiting over our country. … They look like Soviet-era secret weapons, which were called the Fractional Orbital Bombardment System.”
We don’t know if these are nuclear-armed or not, but because of the threat, we should shoot these down over the ocean or the arctic, Pry stated.
If one of these were detonated over the center of the United States, the EMP field generated would cover a large part of North America.
Our way of life and entire civilization “depends upon electricity,” Pry said. “If our nation is without electricity for 1 year, up to 90 percent of our population could die. There’s no coming back from that.”
What Can We Do?
We should do for our civilian critical infrastructures what the Department of Defense has done for our military systems and critical infrastructures in the military, Pry agued.
With relatively little investment in electrical grid infrastructure, we could prevent the bulk of damage done by an EMP weapon.
Individuals need to look ahead as well and have food, water, and other emergency supplies in the event of an EMP attack.
“I’d like Americans to get back in that frame of mind,” he said. “We want America to be safe. We want it to be safe for our grandchildren. We want the government to do the right thing and protect the American people.”