Mike Huckabee kicked off his 2016 presidential campaign yesterday in quintessentially Huckabee-ish fashion. His speech from Hope, Arkansas, was by turns folksy, preacher-like, populist and combative. Huckabee had some pointy words for the other politicians in and around the 2016 race, but there was one line from the foreign policy portion of his speech that caught my attention. “We face not only the threats from terrorism but also the threat of new kinds of dangers,” Huckabee said, “from a cyberwar that could shut down major financial markets, to threats from an electromagnetic pulse from an exploded device that could fry the entire electrical grid and take this country back to the Stone Age in a matter of minutes.”
Oh dear. Here we go with the electromagnetic pulses again. The “exploded device” Huckabee mentioned is a nuclear weapon that some nefarious actor – Iran, North Korea, al-Qaida, ISIS, [insert other international villain] – has managed to detonate in the atmosphere high above the United States. The nuclear blast sends gamma rays flying in all directions, which produce high-energy electrons, which create an electromagnetic pulse that will damage electronic systems. According to the Federation of American Scientists, to create an EMP that would affect the entire country, the malefactor in question would have to detonate a “large device” some 400-500 kilometers over Wichita – roughly the altitude at which the International Space Station orbits earth.
This isn’t what you’d call a “likely” event, but it’s nonetheless on Huckabee’s mind. He’s actually been on the EMP fearmongering beat for a long time. A few years ago he gave a speech to EMPACT – the country’s leading EMP preparedness nonprofit – in which he invoked the Holocaust to warn that measures must be taken now to prevent an EMP-related tragedy. Since he’s running for president and using that platform to bring up EMPs, let’s dive into the weird world of conservative electromagnetic pulse mania.
Popular understanding of electromagnetic pulse attacks are informed by their depictions in movies and other works of fiction. Dystopic-future Batman had to deal with the aftermath of a Soviet EMP attack. George Clooney used an EMP to steal millions of dollars from Andy Garcia. Kurt Russell blacked out the entire world once. The EMP is an absurdly overused sci-fi trope that tends to pop up whenever evil robots need to be defeated. That’s all good, harmless fun, but the threat of an actual EMP attack is a very real concern to a slice of the conservative movement.
The Heritage Foundation has published alarming papers claiming that “all past calamities of the modern era would pale in comparison to the catastrophe caused by a successful high-altitude EMP strike,” and they have a free e-book on how to prepare yourself. The Glenn Beck Fear Borg is convinced that Iran will try to cripple the U.S. by disabling our power grid with an electromagnetic pulse. And Huckabee is hardly the first prominent Republican politician to stoke fears of an EMP strike – Newt Gingrich campaigned on the EMP threat during the 2012 Republican primary, and Ted Cruz warned last year that an EMP strike by the Iranians could leave “tens of millions of Americans” dead. There’s even a congressional Electromagnetic Pulse Caucus that, according to its founder, Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., works to safeguard against “the single greatest asymmetric capability that could fall into the hands of America's enemies.”
Scary stuff! Of course, the people who warn about EMP attacks do tend to focus on the catastrophic aftereffects of the attack, less so than the plausibility of such an attack ever occurring. And therein lies the rub. There’s no question that the U.S. power grid is vulnerable to attack and if someone were to actually detonate a nuclear weapon in the atmosphere over the U.S. and unleash that electromagnetic pulse, it would probably be, you know, bad. But that’s not likely to happen because getting a nuclear weapon into the atmosphere above the United States is an insanely complicated and sophisticated task with a low probability of success.
To get a nuke 400 kilometers over Kansas, per Mike Huckabee’s doomsday vision, you’d have to be in possession of ICBM technology and you would, for some reason, want to use that technology for a reason other than what it was designed to do. “If a country has the capability to launch a nuclear bomb that could wreak immediate massive devastation,” Foreign Policy noted in 2010, “why settle for something that would merely shut the lights out?” And, of course, the U.S. would still be able to launch retaliatory strikes against the country that launched the missile.
Ah, but what about the non-state actors? The terrorists! “Terrorists would not even need a long-range missile to deliver an EMP attack,” the Heritage Foundation posited in 2013, “they could instead launch a short- or medium-range missile from a freighter outside U.S. territorial waters.” OK … we’re ceding quite a bit of technical know-how to guys who are more accustomed to RPGs and AK-47s, but even if they were sophisticated enough to get a nuclear weapon onto a missile, get that missile onto a ship, and get it close to the United States … why wouldn’t they just blow it up close to the United States? Why not use the nuclear weapon as a nuclear weapon instead of as an elaborate electricity-killing device? This is the same sort of thinking that led Very Serious Pundits to warn last fall that al-Qaida operatives might infect themselves with Ebola and come to the U.S. and blow themselves up – sure, they theoretically could go down that needlessly complicated path, but why would they do that?
So, no, an EMP attack isn’t especially likely, despite what Mike Huckabee says. However, ramping up concern over the devastating effects of an EMP blast does mesh nicely with another of Huckabee’s interests: scamming money out of the panic-stricken and the gullible. Conspiracy websites like WorldNetDaily will happily sell you an exorbitantly expensive “Faraday cage,” a specially made box that is supposed to resist electromagnetic radiation and protect any electronics stored within from the devastating effects of an EMP blast. Think of it as a tinfoil hat for your iPad. Of course, the trade-off is that for the Faraday cage to be effective, you have to keep your valuable electronics in there at basically all times, because you never know when al-Qaida’s going to launch that ICBM.