The invasion of Ukraine by Russia has re-ignited concern about the threat of nuclear war. Some have warned of worst-case scenarios, claiming that if Vladimir Putin does not get his way in Ukraine, Russia could use nuclear weapons against its adversary, potentially pulling in more countries. Even if it seems implausible at the present, Western countries should be aware that if the stigma associated with using nuclear weapons is destroyed, the situation may quickly escalate into something much larger and more dangerous.
Nuclear weapons could be used in a tactical fashion against electricity and communications systems, in addition to the typical uses of bombs. The US government has looked into how a nuclear weapon detonated in the mid-stratosphere could cause an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) strike. An EMP powerful enough to destroy electronics and knock out electricity across much of the continental United States may be unleashed if such a bomb was dropped over America’s heartland. This may appear less dangerous than a nuclear weapon exploding in a major American metropolis, but the long-term consequences could be just as bad—or worse. An EMP attack could even be used in conjunction with a nuclear attack on American cities, rather than as a replacement.
An EMP strike was the subject of William Forstchen’s novel “One Second After” While the book was a work of fiction, it depicted a conceivable chain of events that could occur in the event of an EMP strike on America. The pulse would instantly destroy electronic circuits across the country and knock out major portions of the electricity grid in the United States. Some people may perish in the first seconds following the attack, for example, when automotive electronics fail and people are forced to drive off the road. However, these early deaths are expected to be insignificant in compared to the deaths that will occur in the weeks and months following the high-altitude explosion.
Food stocks at supermarkets would run out without autos, and food would decay without refrigerators. Nursing home residents would be deprived of essential medications. Looting would become a problem. Even those who had the forethought to lay aside food, guns, and other supplies in case of a disaster would be rapidly besieged by those who had not.
Only a few countries now have the capability to undertake an EMP-style attack on the US. Russia and China have nuclear weapons and the technology to deliver them through intercontinental ballistic missiles. It’s easy to see smaller governments like North Korea or Iran, as well as terrorist organizations, seeking to obtain similar capabilities.
Furthermore, there is a tremendous incentive to attack first when using EMP warfare. The first hitter has a big advantage because the initial blow can be debilitating. As a result, EMP strategy is more akin to cyber warfare than nuclear strategy during the Cold War. The United States and the Soviet Union relied on the idea of mutual assured annihilation during the Cold War. Because a nuclear assault on the other would result in a devastating reprisal, neither side was willing to risk it. If the initial assault is sufficiently devastating, this rationale may not apply to EMP attacks.
Individual citizens can take a few measures to protect themselves. Hardening electrical devices, stockpiling backup transformers, and storing backup electronics in Faraday cages are all options. It may also be prudent to keep a non-perishable food supply on hand.
However, if the entire power grid is blacked out for an extended period of time, these individual efforts will be ineffective. According to some estimations, a successful EMP attack might knock out power for almost a year, reverting America to pre-industrial revolution technology for a period of time.
The federal government has made some little moves to address the problem, but nothing significant. Former President Trump issued an executive order to investigate the matter. For several years, Congress established a commission that published several thorough reports. Although some are classified, the information that is available to the public is nevertheless alarming. The current power grid is unlikely to be able to fully withstand an EMP strike, and our adversaries may be emboldened as a result of recent military losses in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Some say that the United States does not need to be concerned about an EMP strike because the biggest risks are from Russia and China, who are unlikely to attack us. The difficulty is that as the possibility of nuclear war grows, so do the risks that come with it, including the threat of an EMP strike. As the situation in Europe and China elevates the potential of nuclear war in general, we should be aware of other dangers as well.
Risk analysts frequently point out that the risks of nuclear war erupting, while tiny in any given year, are significant when viewed over time. If the annual risk of nuclear war is 0.4 percent, the total risk over a century is roughly one-third. If the annual chance is slightly higher, another nuclear weapon detonation in a conflict may be more likely than not in our lifetime.
Furthermore, these annual probabilities are unlikely to be independent. To put it another way, if a nuclear attack occurred last year, the chances of one occurring this year are likely to be higher than they would be otherwise. As a result, one disastrous incident might lead to another, causing a chain reaction of disasters, each of which may seem unlikely on its own.
While we can’t defend against all dangers, we can lessen some of them. According to some estimates, the entire cost of protecting the electric grid against an EMP attack may be as low as a few billion dollars per year, which is insignificant when compared to what the US federal government spends and the trillions of dollars at stake.
We should be asking ourselves, personally and collectively, what we are doing to defend our civilization, especially the energy infrastructure we all rely on, in light of the mounting nuclear threat. Our attention should not just be on preventing nuclear war, but also on preventing the other risks that could exacerbate a nuclear conflict.