GOP Platform Vows To Protect U.S. From A Fantasy Weapon

An Electromagnetic Pulse Bomb is an Empty Threat

Starfish Prime Nuclear Explosion

Starfish Prime Nuclear Explosion

Starfish Prime produced an electromagnetic pulse. It was also a nuclear weapon. One of these things is more threatening than the other.US Govt. Defense Threat Reduction Agency, via Wikimedia Commons

When the Big One comes, will we be ready? The Cold War, which spanned from the end of World War II in 1945 to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, threatened apocalypse at every false move. As two nuclear-armed superpowers stared each other down, people somehow lived their lives, knowing that, should things go south, they were just an hour away from an armageddon the world had never seen before. The Cold War ended, and the power dynamics between the relevant nations changed, but the nuclear arsenals still exist, and they still shape how nations interact on the global stage.

The Republican Party just added a plank to their 2016 platform warning against electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapons. Here is that plank, in full:

Protection against an Electromagnetic Pulse A single nuclear weapon detonated at high altitude over this country would collapse our electrical grid and other critical infrastructure and endanger the lives of millions. With North Korea in possession of nuclear missiles and Iran close to having them, an EMP is no longer a theoretical concern. Moreover, China and Russia include sabotage as part of their warfare planning. Nonetheless, hundreds of electrical utility in the U.S. have not acted to protect themselves from EMP and they cannot be expected to do so voluntarily since homeland security is a government responsibility. We support the enactment of Republican legislation, pending in both chambers, to protect the national grid and encourage states to take the initiative to protect their own grids expeditiously.

An electromagnetic pulse is a real phenomenon. It is, as the platform correctly notes, a side effect of a nuclear blast. (Other ways to produce an EMP-like effect are much more limited). A fictional electromagnetic pulse bomb featured prominently in the 2001 heist thriller Ocean's 11. The trouble is not that electromagnetic pulses aren't real. The problem is the way they're delivered.

“A single nuclear weapon detonated at high altitude over this country” would be the opening moment of a nuclear war that would almost certainly escalate and end all human life on earth. The places where it’s theoretically possible to use a nuclear weapon for its electromagnetic destroying abilities are in space or oceanic battlefields.

Only in those instances could systems be shut down without humans being directly killed en masse. Those are the only cases where an nuclear blast's EMP effect is more significant than the devastation it will cause.

Yet EMPs and fear of them maintain a constituency in the United States, almost entirely within the Republican Party.

Writing for Yahoo News, Oliver Knox captured the gist of the phenomena:

Today, the issue remains chiefly Republican, though the House of Representatives EMP Caucus founded in 2011 is a bipartisan 20-member affair. As is frequently the case when federal dollars might be involved, there is also an advocacy group, EMPact America, to pressure Congress to take action. And the conservative Heritage Foundation has repeatedly published warnings about the need to protect the electrical grid — not just from military EMP strikes but also from solar flares that could have a relatively similar impact. “Communications would collapse, transportation would halt, and electrical power would simply be nonexistent,” according to a Heritage report from November 2010. “Not even a global humanitarian effort would be enough to keep hundreds of millions of Americans from death by starvation, exposure, or lack of medicine. Nor would the catastrophe stop at U.S. borders. Most of Canada would be devastated, too, as its infrastructure is integrated with the U.S. power grid. Without the American economic engine, the world economy would quickly collapse. Much of the world’s intellectual brain power (half of it is in the United States) would be lost as well. Earth would most likely recede into the ‘new’ Dark Ages.”

North Korea does not yet, as the statement suggests, possess a missile that can carry a nuclear weapon, much less one that can launch a nuclear weapon across Pacific Ocean to the United States. Iran, likewise, has missiles limited in range, capable of hitting American allies like Turkey and Israel but not able to cross the Atlantic on their own. While North Korea is developing the ability to launch missiles from submarines, it has a long way to go before it works.

While China and Russia have doctrines that support sabotage in warfare (as do, it turns out, most nations fighting wars against other nations), China and Russia maintain skilled units of hackers, which need electrical power functioning to work, and don't risk nuclear war when they conduct sabotage.

Party platforms are more snapshots of values in time than they are indicators of real future legislation. The policy plank encourages protecting the national grid, which is a reasonable position even without the boogeyman of EMP attacks. In fact, there's a threat much more devastating to our power supply, much closer to home: squirrels.