Electromagnetic pulse attacks: The wave of the future, panel says

The detonation of a small nuclear weapon in the upper atmosphere could lead to widespread paralysis of the nation's critical electronic infrastructure and cripple the Defense Department's ability to wage war, experts warn.

Speaking last week at a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee's Research and Development Subcommittee, subcommittee chairman Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.) said the United States' evolution into a technologically dependent society has made its infrastructure vulnerable to the effects of electromagnetic pulses, known as EMPs. An electromagnetic pulse can be generated during a nuclear explosion and is capable of disrupting and even "frying" the integrated circuits of today's high-tech networks and computers.

"The widespread paralysis of electronic computer systems, communications, power grids and transportation systems would not merely be an inconvenience," Weldon said. "Our modern way of life, and life itself, depends upon the functioning of our electronic society. "Some have argued that an EMP event could be like putting the United States in a giant time machine and, in the blink of an eye, transforming our high-tech society into a primitive, pre-industrial one."

However, Stanley Jukaubiak, senior civilian official for Nuclear Command, Control, Communications and EMP Policy for the Defense Department, said that while the EMP phenomenon has been studied for many years, the impact of such an attack is unclear. "We know it will impact electronic equipment, but due to the variation of tolerances built into commercial equipment and the different system configurations, we can't accurately predict how widespread any damage or disruption will be," Jakubiak said.

But military systems are becoming increasingly reliant on commercial off-the-shelf components, which are not designed to withstand the effects of an EMP attack, he said.

William Graham, chairman of the board and president of National Security Research Inc., told members of the subcommittee that an EMP weapon could be employed with great effect against U.S. forces stationed overseas in places like Korea and the Persian Gulf. "By exploding a nuclear weapon over the theater, the ability of U.S. and allied forces to make full use of their electronic systems would be degraded to some degree," Graham said. In addition, "interruption of satellite availability could pose a serious problem to [DOD's] regional warfighting capability," he said.

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