Gingrich and EMP

December 15, 2011
David Wright
Former contributor

Newt Gingrich is reportedly concerned enough about a large-scale electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack that he discusses it frequently as a serious threat to US security. Such EMP attacks could result from exploding a missile-launched nuclear warhead high in the atmosphere above the US (rather than near the ground) with the intent of disrupting electronic equipment over potentially large areas.

Mr. Gingrich says the US has “zero national strategy to respond to it today” and therefore argues for preemptive strikes on Iranian and North Korean missile sites that could be the source of such future attacks.

What is particularly odd about this concern is that Mr. Gingrich and others act like they have discovered a new threat that no one is taking seriously or trying to do anything about.

But as noted above, the EMP scenario is the same as a nuclear missile attack on the US, except that the nuclear warhead is exploded high in the atmosphere instead of closer to the ground to destroy a target by blast. Lots of people are very concerned about the possibility of a future nuclear attack, and have been for a long time. Lots of effort is being put into trying to keep that from happening. Those efforts are the same things you would do to prevent an EMP attack created by a nuclear weapon. It’s not as though people haven’t noticed the threat of nuclear attack and that pointing out the potential EMP aspect of nuclear attacks will spur them into action.

So to say the US has “zero national strategy to respond to it today” suggests a deep misunderstanding of the issue. He may question how effective US efforts to prevent nuclear attacks might be, but a lot of strategies are in place.

Interestingly, Mr. Gingrich’s statement implies that he does not view developing missile defenses as a useful “national strategy” to address missile-launched threats, since if he thought missile defense was an effectively strategy for addressing missile attacks, he would see it as a useful strategy for addressing EMP attacks. It’s contradictory to argue the US should be building such defenses to stop nuclear attacks, but that it wouldn’t be useful for stopping EMP attacks.

(I happen to agree that missile defense is not a reliable way to stop missile attacks for reasons I’ve discussed elsewhere, but I don’t think that is what’s behind Mr. Gingrich’s statements.)

But the bigger issue is whether it makes sense to prioritize the EMP threat over other threats facing the United States.

The effect of an EMP attack on the US could be severe, but would be very difficult to predict, since it relies on so many details that will be unknown to the attacker. Moreover, the potential effects continue to be a matter of debate. The attacker would not know how well the US had protected key systems or how large an area it might actually affect. Given this uncertainty, a country that decided to attack the US with a nuclear weapon and risk devastating retaliation would seem much more likely to instead detonate the weapon near the ground over a city.

So why the focus on this issue? Is it because of the high-tech, gee-whiz factor, whereas other threats sound dated?

In any event, if this is a security issue Mr. Gingrich is focusing on, then it calls into question his judgment about how to prioritize threats and his understanding of what is being done to address them.