When the lights go out forever...

It would come with almost no warning. Without any immediate signs as to why, the lights go out, cars stop dead, telephones cease to function, everything with a microchip in it fails, and most of it all never works again.


In the wake of an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack on the United States, part or all of the country is thrust back into the 1860s but with 10 times the population. The threat is real, it is pressing, and the United States is doing little to address it.

It strikes many Americans as a fanciful prospect, almost cheesy apocalypse porn, to suggest that something as simple as the destruction of the nation’s power grid could thrust the United States into the dark ages. But those who have investigated this prospect are not rolling their eyes to the threat as are so many of the country’s sophisticates.

In The Wall Street Journal opinion pages on Wednesday, former CIA director James Woolsey and CIA veteran and congressional EMP Commission member Peter Vincent Pry warn of the threat posed by an EMP attack on the United States.

Recent declassification of EMP studies by the U.S. government has begun to draw attention to this dire threat. Rogue nations such as North Korea (and possibly Iran) will soon match Russia and China and have the primary ingredients for an EMP attack: simple ballistic missiles such as Scuds that could be launched from a freighter near our shores; space-launch vehicles able to loft low-earth-orbit satellites; and simple low-yield nuclear weapons that can generate gamma rays and fireballs.

“What would a successful EMP attack look like?” they ask. “The EMP Commission, in 2008, estimated that within 12 months of a nationwide blackout, up to 90% of the U.S. population could possibly perish from starvation, disease and societal breakdown.”


This is a rather antiseptic way of phrasing at the die out which would accompany an EMP attack. Those deaths occur in the immediate wake of this attack due to starvation, thirst, lack of medical care and viable pharmaceuticals, exposure, and mass violence. In the ensuing months, with governmental services having broken down entirely, fiefdoms arise. Conflict over scarce resources becomes commonplace. The globe, faced with the almost immediate withdrawal of American military power, descends into war as competing powers rush to fill the vacuum.

These thought experiments sound far too much like science fiction for many. And there is some excellent science fiction surrounding speculation as to what an EMP attack would look like. William Forstchen’s One Second After is an especially compelling read exploring what effects an EMP attack would have on society in the near and long-term.

Can this dark future be prevented? Of course, but the will to address this threat in Washington apparently does not exist.

“In June 2013, Rep. Trent Franks (R., Ariz.) and Rep. Yvette Clark (D., N.Y.) introduced the Secure High-voltage Infrastructure for Electricity from Lethal Damage, or Shield, Act,” Woolsey and Pry write. “Unfortunately, the legislation is stalled in the House Energy and Commerce Committee.”

Similarly, the committee-approved Critical Infrastructure Protection Act (CIPA), also aimed at crafting a national emergency plan to help local, state, and federal officers mitigate the risks the public will face in the wake of an EMP attack has not come to a vote in Congress.


“The cost of protecting the national electric grid, according to a 2008 EMP Commission estimate, would be about $2 billion—roughly what the U.S. gives each year in foreign aid to Pakistan,” the WSJ editorial observes.

Too often, though, cynicism and skepticism have prevented America’s political leaders from acting. It may be too late when they finally realize the scale of this threat to American national security.

It is ironic that, in just a handful of generations, America’s dependence on electricity and computer technology is absolute. Its disappearance would lead to the collapse of civilization, a prospect which must look quite enticing to those actors who wish to do America harm.

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David Strom 6:00 PM | February 27, 2024