Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Elephant in the Room: Ignoring a doomsday scenario

Congress created a commission to study it in 2001. The commission concluded in 2004 that it was "one of a small number of threats that has the potential to hold our society seriously at risk and might result in defeat of our military forces," and that a determined adversary could use the weapon against us without "a high level of sophistication."

Last year, the commission issued another report saying it could lead to "catastrophic consequences." Earlier this year, another commission found the country had "done little to reduce its vulnerability to attack" with this weapon. And last week, 2012 presidential contenders Mike Huckabee and Newt Gingrich said they would speak at a conference on the possibility of such an attack being held by the group EMPACT America.

What's the weapon? An electromagnetic pulse, or EMP, which could be triggered by one or more nuclear warheads exploded more than 100 miles above the United States. Imagine a continent-sized, invisible lightning strike, only more devastating. To those not in a car or plane, it would resemble a power outage at first; nothing electrical would work.

But according to the Electromagnetic Pulse Commission, it would fry our electrical grid, as well as most devices with electronic components, including motor vehicles and backup generators. It could be months, maybe even years, before power is restored and vehicles are repaired.

Most cities would be out of food and medicine in a few days, thanks to the prevalence of "just-in-time" inventory. Without water pumps, there would be little potable water. Life after such a strike, EMP Commission Chairman William Graham has said, would look "a lot like life in the 1800s."

Only worse: The population of the 1800s wasn't concentrated in cities without access to sufficient food or safe water. People then knew how to survive without electricity and modern transportation. We don't.

In One Second After, a novel based on EMP Commission findings, military historian William Forstchen imagines life - or what would pass for it - after three EMP strikes affecting the United States. He depicts waves of death, starting with the passengers on commercial airplanes falling out of the sky, explosions in manufacturing facilities, and patients on life support; followed by the chronically sick, such as patients on dialysis machines or lifesaving medications; and then the victims of ruthless violence, disease, and starvation. All told, the novel suggests 90 percent of Americans won't survive a year. In short, doomsday.

So is the government taking the threat seriously? Well, the government has taken steps to "harden" senior leadership communications in Washington against an EMP attack. But the Department of Homeland Security doesn't include it on its list of potential threats, and the Defense Department has no plans to spend money on preparation. There are reports, conferences, and voices of concern, but we remain unprepared.

The probability and fallout of such an attack are debatable, but the scale of potential destruction demands action now.

Our post-Cold War strategy to prevent nuclear attacks has been to stop nuclear proliferation. That is a great strategy until it fails, which has already happened and is continuing to happen in Iran. We need to make our missile defense system fully operational now.

What else? Here is something the big spenders from one end of Pennsylvania Avenue to the other will be glad to hear: We need to spend money to study the electromagnetic pulse threat; to help states, localities, and families prepare; and to protect our critical electric infrastructure and transportation networks now.

America's enemies know our Achilles' heel and are no doubt planning to exploit it. The government is wise to protect our senior leadership. Now how about the rest of us?


Rick Santorum can be contacted at rsantorum@phillynews.com.

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