Ask a Scholar: Electromagnetic Pulse Attack

Robert Bishop

Dear Ask a Scholar,

In an April 5, 2010, article, "EMP Attack Would Decimate America" [EMP stands for Electromagnetic Pulse], Dr. Graham stated it would cost US between $200-$400 million to protect the 300 transformers. My question is, "How much would it cost to protect approximately 100 acres? What would it entail? Where can I get the information? Who can I contact to do the estimate and work?

- Lee W. Keating

Answered by Robert Bishop, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and former submarine officer, whose positions included being a nuclear weapons officer on a fast attack nuclear submarine.

I do remember the concern, back when I was in the Navy, about the possibility of an EMP attack (although I think it was called something different then).  The concern was an EMP attack that would fry, almost literally, the electronics of anything (e.g., the controls of a bomber or fighter, whether airborne of back on the runway).  I think that there was a lot of effort to “harden” the then electronics to make them less vulnerable, but I have no idea what that encompassed – as a submariner, we would not be vulnerable because we were below the surface, so it didn’t apply to us (and thus I didn’t care/notice what was going on about it so much).

I remember the issue surfacing again in the late 70s, when I became tangentially involved in civil defense in the State of Connecticut.  

I agree with Dr. Graham’s assessment that an EMP would have significant effects on the U.S. population, economy and civilization as we know it.  However, it is extremely unlikely (although certainly not impossible) that a belligerent who had a nuclear weapons capability, both to create and launch, would settle with just one air-burst over some sector of the U.S.  If so, the people in that sector would certainly be seriously affected.  However, the rest of the U.S. would be okay.  If there were multiple nuclear weapons successfully deployed so as to cause a wide-spread effect, I must assume that we would be in the middle of a massive nuclear exchange, and frankly, there is little value in proceeding down that line.

The short answer, unfortunately, is that neither you nor I nor anyone else can do much to prevent, or survive, a nuclear weapon that is designed to send out a huge EMP.  There is nothing that you could realistically do to protect your 100 acres, wherever you are located.  If you are a significant distance away from a population center/strategic target (certainly 50 miles would do), you're undoubtedly not going to be affected.  Not so those of us in, say, for instance, New York or Washington, DC. I think that the risk remains very small, and my personal opinion is that we need our government to do other things for us that have a higher priority. 

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