Renowned Physicists Cast Doubt on Gingrich’s Far-Fetched Scenario about EMP weapons

Summary:  With Newt Gingrich leading in the Republican presidential polls, many of the hobby horses of the far right surge into view again.  They’ve invested considerable resources convincing Americans about things to hate or fear.  One such is EMP, a civilization-ending strike from the sky.  Today’s guest article by Nick Schwellenbach explains the reality behind the stories.  This is a follow-up to Electromagnetic Pulse Weapons, generating waves of fear in America for 20 years.

Renowned Physicists Doubt Gingrich’s Far-Fetched EMP Scenario

By guest author Nick Schwellenbach

EMP attack


  1. Introduction
  2. Experts evaluate the EMP threat
  3. Congress blind on science issues
  4. Conclusion
  5. About the author
  6. For more information

(1)  Introduction

Newt Gingrich has been trying to scare the wits out of Americans with a scenario many experts say is out of a Batman movie and not plausible at all. The threat being pushed by Republican presidential hopeful Gingrich is that of a terrorist attack or a so-called “rogue” nation involving electromagnetic pulse, or EMP, a secondary effect caused by nuclear weapons.

EMP is real, but several key details about the threat of an EMP attack—including the difficulty in pulling it and the amount of damage it would cause — remain in serious dispute. But you wouldn’t know that by listening to Gingrich, who claims that a band of terrorists with a relatively small nuclear warhead could optimize that warhead to produce EMP (something the U.S. has not mastered), attach that warhead to a Scud missile, launch the Scud from a freighter off the coast of the U.S. to a point halfway across the continent, detonate it several miles up in the atmosphere, and end modern civilization as we know it on North America.

Needless to say, many experts view this scenario as far-fetched.

(2)  Experts evaluate the EMP threat

One of those experts is Nobel prize-winning physicist Jack Steinberger. Several years ago, he provided me with a draft paper that casts serious doubt on Gingrich’s hype around EMP, which has rested on the findings of a little-known congressionally mandated panel called the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse Attack, or the EMP Commission. Steinberger’s paper was never published until now. In it, Steinberger wrote,, “It is not clear that spending billions, as some propose to [C]ongress, on hardening of telecommunication, electric power networks, and public microelectronics to ‘protect’ against a possible HEMP [High-altitude EMP], is in the public interest.”

I originally planned on writing a freelance article years ago on Steinberger’s paper. I even contacted several experts familiar with Steinberger’s work and, at the invitation of the late Carl Baum, an electrical engineer and EMP expert, visited the Trestle, an EMP testing platform at Kirtland Air Force Base outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico. However, I lost steam on writing the article due to other obligations. But in light of The New York Times’ critical report on Gingrich’s EMP propaganda, I figured it’s time to make this stuff public.

In my preliminary reporting, it was clear that some of the world’s most renowned minds in the field of physics thought highly of Steinberger’s understanding of EMP. “A cursory reading shows that [Steinberger’s paper] is thoughtful, independent, and sound,” emailed physicist and nuclear weapons guru Richard Garwin, who has advised the U.S. government for decades. “I have not reproduced the calculations, but I have no reason to doubt them.”

What also came out was the surprise by some that EMP was being discussed as some sort of existential threat to society. “I am not an expert on the subject of EMP, but I am generally familiar with the relevant physics,” stated renowned physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson, in an email to me. “I was surprised when I heard that Jack was working on the problem, because I had the impression that nobody who was technically competent believed the scare stories about EMP. I thought that Jack was flogging a dead horse. But it is possible that the horse is not as dead as I thought it was.”

Baum, the EMP expert and former Kirtland Air Force Base senior scientist, told me that he thought the effects of EMP are still a huge unknown and needed further study.

There is, however, a related and far more plausible threat from solar flare-fueled geomagnetic storms to the electrical power grid, as The Space Review wrote about last year {for more information see this post}. The Review’s Yousaf M. Butt wrote that the U.S. should “kill two birds with one stone. However, the prioritization of our responses should emphasize the threat posed by geomagnetic storms,” such as hardening key parts of the electrical power infrastructure and “stockpiling large electrical transformers so they could be moved into place in an emergency.”

This response, according to The Space Review’s report, should not involve national missile defense, which has been one of the solutions pushed vigorously by some members of the EMP Commission, as well as Gingrich. As Butt wrote:

An incidental benefit of hardening our infrastructure is that it would also obviate the need for such an expensive (and, as argued by many experts, an ineffective) missile defense. Once the grid is hardened, and this fact has been made public, there is no further need for NMD [National Missile Defense]: it would be a particularly stupid enemy that would try their hand at a EMP strike against a known EMP-hardened infrastructure, with backups and contingency plans in place.

The sad tale of EMP scare-mongering illustrates two huge problems: how politicians use fear to drive policy, and the dismantlement of objective, institutional expertise. These two problems are intertwined. By sidelining objective expertise and utilizing biased experts who are quick to offer distorted, exaggerated pictures of the threat, politicians remove the checks built into the system.

This happened with EMP.

(3)  How Congress gouged out its own eyes on science issues

In the mid-1990s, when Gingrich was Speaker of the House, Congress dismantled its Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), a highly professional and objective organization that advised Congress on complex scientific and technical issues. Republican Roger Herdman, a medical doctor who was OTA’s last director, was quoted by journalist Chris Mooney in the September/October 2005 issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists as saying, “There are those who said the Speaker [Gingrich] didn’t want an internal congressional voice that had views on science and technology that might differ from his.”

In OTA’s place, certain members of Congress decided to rely on individual and often highly biased experts. The editor’s note in the September/October 2005 issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists stated that “most troubling of all is that absent a neutral arbiter of scientific facts, some members of Congress now surround themselves with their own handpicked ‘experts’ and allow the scientific consensus on vital issues to be defined by self-interested lobbyists and think tanks.”

Gingrich pushed this new practice of Congress cherry-picking scientific experts who provided views they favored — ideas which were not always the most scientifically sound.

To further quote Strauss’s editorial, “OTA would have likely raised a questioning eyebrow at the findings of the congressionally mandated panel, the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse Attack.” The membership of that Commission, upon which Gingrich relies heavily, is composed mostly of right-wing nuclear and missile defense hawks who exemplify the cherry-picked and ideologically-slanted approach to science expertise that Gingrich brought to fruition.

(4)  Conclusion

As we move forward, we need to consider whether we should continue to spend billions of dollars on programs like national missile defense justified by fanciful threats like EMP, while we slash millions of dollars on experts who work for the public interest to prevent and stop boondoggles from starting in the first place.

—————— End of guest post ——————–

(5)  About the author

Nick Schwellenbach is an investigator and blog editor at the Project On Government Oversight (POGO), an investigative non-profit organization in Washington, DC.  He rejoined POGO in 2010, and oversees POGO’s investigations. In addition, he conducts investigations into national security-related corruption, incompetence, and waste; transportation safety; government secrecy policies and practices; and the effectiveness of government oversight.

Prior to rejoining POGO, Mr. Schwellenbach was a staff writer at the Center for Public Integrity from 2008 to 2010, where he wrote about congressional ethics and defense spending. He and the Center were finalists for the 2009 Scripps Howard Raymond Clapper Washington Reporting award for investigative work on the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. He also assisted in the direction of a Knight Foundation-funded News21 team of eleven graduate students from around the country working on an investigative series on transportation safety.

Previously, Mr. Schwellenbach was an investigator at POGO from 2004 through 2008. His work on lavish Air Force accommodations for generals was one of three POGO investigations cited by the Society of Professional Journalists when they awarded POGO its prestigious national Sunshine Award for improving government transparency. He has testified before Congress on the need for stronger whistleblower protections in order to improve congressional oversight. From August 2006 through February 2007, he was a reporter-researcher for the Nieman Watchdog, a project of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University, that seeks to improve the quality of American journalism.

Mr. Schwellenbach earned his M.A. in Journalism and Public Affairs from American University and his B.A. in History with a minor in Economics from the University of Texas-Austin.

His writings have been published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the San Diego Union Tribune, the Detroit Free Press, the Houston Chronicle and other publications.

Other articles by Nick Schwellenback:

  1. The Next Fake Threat“, AlterNet, 21 September 2005 — “A congressionally-mandated commission with ties to the defense industry is pushing a fake threat — electromagnetic pulse attacks — when the Pentagon can hardly conduct one itself.”
  2. EMPtyThreat?“, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Sept/Oct 2005 — Subscription only.  See a summary here. “The latest doomsday threat to emerge from Washington envisions terrorists unleashing an EMP to produce the mother of all blackouts. Don’t be afraid of the dark.”
  3. Articles at the Nieman Watchdog, published by Harvard’s Neiman Foundation for Journalism

(6)  For More Information

Articles about EMP:

  1. Evaluation of Methodologies for Estimating Vulnerability to Electromagnetic Pulse Effects, National Academy of Sciences, 1984
  2. Effect of the Fast Nuclear Electromagnetic Pulse on the Electric Power Grid Nationwide: A Different View“, Mario Rabinowitz (physicist, see Wikipedia), Power Engineering Review (IEEE), October 1987
  3. E-BOMB“, Jim Wilson, Popular Mechanics, September 2001 — A masterpiece of speculative fantasy. “In the blink of an eye, electromagnetic bombs could throw civilization back 200 years. And terrorists can build them for $400.”
  4. The Next Fake Threat“, Nick Schwellenbach, AlterNet, 21 September 2005 — “A congressionally-mandated commission with ties to the defense industry is pushing a fake threat — electromagnetic pulse attacks — when the Pentagon can hardly conduct one itself.”
  5. EMPtyThreat?“, Nick Schwellenbach, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Sept/Oct 2005 — Subscription only.  See a summary here. “The latest doomsday threat to emerge from Washington envisions terrorists unleashing an EMP to produce the mother of all blackouts. Don’t be afraid of the dark.”
  6. Commission to Assess the Threat from High Altitude Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP), 2008
  7. Aircraft could be brought down by DIY ‘E-bombs’“, Paul Marks, New Scientist, 01 April 2009
  8. Excellent summary: “An Endless Bounty of EMP Crazies”, George Smith (aka Dick Destiny), 6 April 2009 — Part One, Part Two.
  9. The Newt Bomb: How a pulp-fiction fantasy became a GOP weapons craze“, The New Republic, 3 June 2009
  10. Neocons Salivating Over Their Next Great Exaggerated ‘Threat’: Electromagnetic Pulse Attack“, Robert Farley, AlterNet, 22 October 2009 — “A diverse array of right-wing factions have united behind the effort to promote the EMP threat thesis.”
  11. Aircraft could be brought down by DIY ‘E-bombs’, Paul Marks, New Scientist, 1 April 2009
  12. “The EMP threat: fact, fiction, and response”, Yousaf M. Butt (staff scientist at the Center for Astrophysics at Harvard), The Space Review, January 2010 — Part One, Part Two, Rebuttal
  13. Nuclear Weapon EMP Effects, Federation of American Scientists
  14. For more references see the Wikpedia entry


30 thoughts on “Renowned Physicists Cast Doubt on Gingrich’s Far-Fetched Scenario about EMP weapons”

  1. Derryl Hermanutz

    “Newt Gingrich has been trying to scare the wits out of Americans with a scenario many experts say is out of a Batman movie and not plausible at all.”

    Newt will not be pleased to see the author impugning the proven technologies of Batman. If Adam West were alive he could verify the scientific soundness of every device he used so effectively to thwart the baddies. Would that Batman were here today to protect the virtuous Wall St denizens of Gotham City against the villanous Jokers and Penguins who reside in the good City’s regulatory bowels.

    1. Can American survive when so many people get their information from novels (like One Second After)? Fortunately such statements provide useful information — telling us much about the speaker. This is an especially odd statement given that this post provides links to useful sources.

      For those of you who do not get their information from doomster fiction, but are curious about this example of the genre — here is the wikipedia entry for One Second After (2009). The author, William R. Forstchen, is a historian {wikipedia}.

  2. “Newt Gingrich has been trying to scare the wits out of Americans with a scenario many experts say is out of a Batman movie and not plausible at all.”

    It’s not out of a batman movie, it’s out of a crappy hackwork novel called One Second After By William Forstchen.

    I’ve already pointed out, in other threads on this site, how bogus the premise is. But the fear-mongering strikes so deep that when someone (like myself) offers factual arguments why it’s not a threat, nobody cares until a quotable authority says it’s not a threat. Unfortunately the sheeple society are accustomed to only taking things as truth when they’re said in a tone of command, rather than engaging their brains and doing a little research. It doesn’t even take 10 minutes of googling and reading to debunk this nonsense. Which ought to tell you that Gingrich is lying, or ignorant, or both.

    1. Why don’t u learn about sheep before stereotyping them as something oooo bad? Sheeple is an anti-Christian slur, and it’s obvious you’re a typical hateful anti-Christian liberal moron atheist. Get a life, get a clue, stop being a presumptuous parrot.

      1. Chosen by grace,

        “Sheeple is an anti-Christian slur”

        Google shows examples of this term used to describe Christians, but also used in many other contexts. Neither the various dictionaries or Wikipedia list it as a specific.

        As for your characterization of the FM website’s politics, it has been accused of being far-Left and far-right. Both are wrong.

        As for your comment, your resort to insults rather than rebuttal is quite sheeple.

  3. I think there is something called the SHIELD Act in Congress that has to do with hardening the grid against EMP attack. Have you heard anything new on it? Might be a useful link to put up.

  4. None of these scare stories about EMP address the strategic question that matters: why would someone with a nuke, who wanted to hurt the USA, waste it on a most-likely-ineffective EMP strike when they could just set it off in downtown Los Angeles?

    The EMP story assumes a ship and a delivery system capable of lofting an H-bomb a reasonable distance. It presupposes, most importantly, an H-bomb. So the story boils down to: one of the small number of powers on earth with advanced nuclear weapons decides to commit a fairly lavish form of suicide. OK, that’s plausible, but only barely.

    1. All of the electronics that make the modern society would be fried and then about 90% would be dead within a year from civil unrest, starvation and disease.

      “A Klub-K variant, which launches from commercial-appearing shipping container mounted on a truck, train, or merchant vessel, was advertised in 2010 and was shown for the first time at the MAKS 2011 airshow” {wikipedia}

      Starfish Prime and a Soviet test (cant remember which one) demonstrate how dangerous EMP is to our society.

      1. There is little point in reply to material that you have not read, or repeating the misinformation that is the subject of the post. As been explained in some detail (with supporting links) this is a largely bogus threat. No matter how many doomster novels you read about it.

    1. No, your comment is on-topic. Based on the dozens of comments you’ve made — people like yourself, guilible and obsessed with so many exaggerated stories about low-probability threats, are a serious impediment to a rational understand of the risks we face — and and obstacle to planning effective responses.

  5. Forget Al Qaeda with a EMP bomb or Super Bug. A much bigger threat to the USA is AARP with a bus load of Senators.

  6. 90% dead within a year ….. I have a ridiculous idea to save civilisation in the event of the attack . Crazy , but could we survive without electricity ? I realise this idea is really radical and totally alien to the human species. What would we eat if they did not make food in shops ? How could we keep warm without underfloor heating , how could we communicate without twitter ? Cutting edge research is needed on these novel problems .

    1. It’s the romance of doomster liteature! Perhaps because we retain the love of eschatological stories, but no longer find the Christian versions of interest. Our religion is pseudoscience, and so the large audience for faux-science stories explaining why WE WILL ALL DIE VERY SOON! It’s the mythology of our times.

      It’s a pitifully shallow literature. The only solution is manatory reading of The History of Hell by Alice K. Turner (1995).

  7. I read both “One Second After” and the Rabinowitz paper. The latter put my mind at rest and the former has become a tale just as Pat Frank’s “Alas Babylon” is a tale.

    However, there is still a solar CME that could cause extensive damage to our power grid. Not too likely, but its caused blackouts in the last 15 years or so. If too many transformers are damaged, large areas would be without power for a while.

    Up close and personal, I’m worried about lightning strikes damaging my ham radio equipment.

    1. I agree!

      (1) About the potential destruction from a solar storm.

      From the Wikipedia entry about the Carrington Event (see the links in the references for more information):

      The solar storm of 1859, also known as the Solar Superstorm, or the Carrington Event, which occurred during solar cycle 10, was the most powerful solar storm in recorded history, and the largest flare, observed by Richard Christopher Carrington, became known as the Carrington Super Flare.

      For an detrailed analysis see “Severe Space Weather Events – Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts“, National Academy of Sciences, 2008 — Excerpt:

      Because of the interconnectedness of critical infrastructures in modern society, the impacts of severe space weather events can go beyond disruption of existing technical systems and lead to short-term as well as to long-term collateral socioeconomic disruptions. Electric power is modern society’s cornerstone technology, the technology on which virtually all other infrastructures and services depend. Although the probability of a wide-area electric power blackout resulting from an extreme space weather event is low, the consequences of such an event could be very high, as its effects would cascade through other, dependent systems.

      … we begin with a description of the magnetic superstorms of August-September 1859, by some measures the most severe space weather event on record. {approximately four times larger than anything seen in the past 50 years}. Known as the Carrington event, the 1859 storms were referred to throughout the workshop as an example of the kind of extreme space weather event that, if it were to occur today, could have profound societal and economic consequences, with cascading effects throughout the complex and interrelated infrastructures of modern society.

      … The disruption of the telegraph system in 1859 caused problems in communication, but because modern society is so dependent on large, complex, and interconnected technical systems — and because these systems not only are vital for the functioning of the economy but also are vulnerable to electromagnetic events — a contemporary repetition of the Carrington event would cause significantly more extensive (and possibly catastrophic) social and economic disruptions.

      (2) About shockwaves

      For a discussion of shockwaves — what they are and how we should prepare — see this post from January 2009.

    2. And we are entering a period of increased solar activity to peak in 2012-13 or something. Looks like the collapse of industrial civilization will happen soon.

      1. Where do you get this nonsense? You are one of the more consistent sources of misinformation I’ve seen among the hundreds of commenters on this website. I feel sory for you; there is hope if you junk your current reading habits — and subscribe to the New York Times, New Scientist and The Economist.

        The current solar cycle (#24) is projected to peak in 2013-14, but it is forecast (and so far has been) one of the least active of the past two centuries. For more information see:

        This story has been intensively covered on the FM website. See section two on the FM Reference Page about Science and the Climate.

  8. I suppose this is the right wing equivalent of the sort of manufactured panic that left wingers used to have about nuclear winter and the like. The effects of nuclear weapons were very bad, so the threat of nuclear war was existential, therefore we had to disarm unlaterally. I think that a nuclear missile attack, whatever damage the resulting EMP caused, or failed to cause, would certainly be a bad thing, but that is why we have deterrance. I don’t find the idea that EMP could have crippling effects particularly farfetched. The idea that someone could mount an attack using nuclear missiles and not leave a return address does seem a bit difficult to credit.

    By the way, EMP never figured in a Batman movie. The aliens used it in the Tom Cruise remake of The War of the Worlds. It fried all the solenoids on every car, even the ones that were not running at the time, but left the solenoids on the shelf at the repair shop untouched. Thus Tom Cruise was able to escape the alien attack in a repaired car. Alien weaponry, being based on advanced technology beyond the comprehension of pathetic Earthings, is capable of whatever effects the plot requires.

  9. The sun is going to go into its expansion phase relatively soon, in terms of the life of the universe. When it does, Earth will be the temperature of molten lead!! And there is NOTHING we can do to prevent it from happening.

    We only have a few billion years to spend lots of money to solve this problem! I’ll pass the hat and you can all give – give deeply – this is physical law we’re up against.

  10. How can anyone say for sure that a terrorist group wouldn’t give a ship-based nuclear EMP attack a shot? One could be launched from our coasts–Atlantic, Pacific, or Gulf. Then, they’d sink the ship they used, (it would be under false flags anyway) so there would be no way to know at whom to direct any retaliation.

    I have heard others use the same reasoning that a nuclear EMP attack is unlikely. Perhaps everyone is missing the point that there are terrorists who don’t care about retaliation…some blow themselves up when they attack us.

    And retaliation is only possible if their attack fails–a big if, considering the consequences–if they get their missile-building instructions from the right folks and the attack succeeds, we’ll be in the dark for months. No electricity = no heat for most of us, no water pumps keeping municipal supplies flowing, no banking or communication, and no refrigeration–think of all the medicines that have to stay cool.

    But never mind Mr. Gingrich and the controversial nuclear EMP attack for a moment. The science behind protecting our national electric grid from severe solar flares is solid, so we have to at least protect the grid from that level of EMI and GIC. Google the Carrington event.

    It’s a pity that the media is focused only on what the candidates have said, and don’t do simple Google searches on EMP, because the public should know more about the risks we face.

    1. Mark,

      Your comment suggests that you did not read the post, which specifically discusses the points you raise. The links at the end go to articles which do so in greater detail.

      “How can anyone say for sure that a terrorist group would…”

      (a) They are unlikely to have either a suitable nuke (either powerful or specially designed), or a missile capable of lofting it.

      (b) If they have such a nuke, they could use it on a city — rather than attempting a far more complex EMP attack, with uncertain results (the effects are only theoretical).

      (c) As I have said so many times, there a thousands of possible dangers. We cannot defend agsint them all. We have to set prioties depending on the odds of each and their relative threat.

  11. Speaking as an engineer, you don’t want a spherically expanding EM wave because the wave amplitude decays as the square of the radius. Rather quickly you run out of volts/cm. oomph to fry anything. OTOH a focused, space based micro-wave EM weapon could fry just about anything (or anyone), even a head as swollen as Newt’s. Like killing ants with a lens, through clouds and everything. Move over drones. And God help us if we learn how to do the same with X-radiation.

  12. Seems all you against preparing for an EMP strike are stupid, if you, at least the article author acknowledges that it’s possible, and that a solar flare is a greater threat, then WHY WOULD YOU NOT WANT TO HARDEN THE GRID/S? Dumb. Are you atheists? Cuz ur dumb.

    1. Chosen by grace,


      Hardening the grid is a great idea, esp part of a program to upgrade it’s largely obsolete structure. Your assumption that we oppose that is incorrect.

      “Dumb. ”

      When you point a finger, three point back at yourself.

      Your handle seems quite inappropriate. Quite contradictory to your comments. Please do better or future comments will be deleted. Facts, logic, etc. Less insults.

  13. Pingback: EMP: An Elaborate Hoax or a Legitimate Threat? - The Organic Prepper

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