The World Won't End: The Danger of an EMP Attack Is More Fantasy Than Fact

Matthew Gault

Key point: A nuclear war is scarier and besides it isn't so easy to generate a really large EMP burst.

Few weapons are as scary as those that exist only in our minds.

A few years ago when the Republican Party released its platform to the public in the run-up to its national convention at the tail end of a section titled “America Resurgent,” GOP leaders detailed what they felt is a looming threat of America — electromagnetic pulses.

“A single nuclear weapon detonated at high altitude over this country would collapse our electrical grid and other critical infrastructures and endanger the lives of millions,” the platform stated. “With North Korea in possession of nuclear missiles and Iran close to having them, an EMP is no longer a theoretical concern — it is a real threat.”

But it’s not.

The problem with fear over electromagnetic weapons is that it forgets two simple facts. First, generating enough juice to cause a significant amount of damage is really hard. Second, a country dealing with busted electronics after an EMP assault is a country fighting a nuclear war.

“EMP is the new test case of seriousness in national security,” cyber security expert Peter W. Singer tweeted after reading the platform. “But not in the way advocates not in on the joke think.”

I reached out to Singer and, after a brief pause to make sure I was serious, he pounced. “There’s this irony of the people who think it’s serious not realizing that they’re the joke,” he explained. “When you walk through the actual scenarios of use, it doesn’t pass the logic test.”

An electromagnetic pulse following a nuclear blast is a real thing. The problem is that the process of creating an EMP big enough without the devastation of a nuclear warhead is expensive, absurd and not worth the effort. That’s if it even works.

For that, we can’t recommend enough a 2010 series of articles in The Space Review by Yousaf M. Butt, a physicist currently serving as a foreign affairs officer in the State Department’s Space and Advanced Technology office.

“For a large device (greater than 100 kilotons) …. the whole region on the Earth’s surface which is within line-of-sight to the high-altitude explosion will experience the EMP pulse,” he wrote.

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