A campaign by US right wingers, designed to raise fears of an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack they allege could cripple Western nations and lead to chaos, is targeting British politicians, with some success.
James Arbuthnot, the Conservative chairman of the Defence Select Committee, recently questioned the government's preparedness against the supposed threat, which critics dismiss as scaremongering and say is promoted to lobby for defence spending.
Following the publication of the UK's updated National Security Strategy earlier this month, he asked the Home Secretary Alan Johnson "what recent discussions he has had on electromagnetic pulses".
Arbuthnot's office told The Register the question was prompted by a material received from EMPACT America Inc, an EMP lobby group that runs an annual conference, open to members of the public for $50 per ticket.
Avi Schnurr, the group's president - and also executive director of the Israel Missile Defence Association, another hawkish lobbying organisation - gave a presentation at a meeting of parliamentarians on July 6.
According to Labour lord Toby Harris, Arbuthnot, who chaired the meeting, introduced it as "the most important meeting you will ever go to".
In a blog posting entitled "Be afraid. Be very afraid.", Harris told how a terrorist group or rogue state detonating a small nuclear bomb in the upper atmosphere could destroy power infrastructure, take down the internet and stop food distribution. "Social structures would break down very rapidly," he warned.
"And as if the threat from a rogue state or terrorists was not enough, electromagnetic pulses can occur naturally as part of solar activity," Harris added.
In the US the campaign to raise fears in the political classes about EMP threats is well established. This week Roscoe Bartlett, a Republican Congressman from Maryland, told the House Subcommittee on Emerging Threats, Cybersecurity, and Science and Technology that an attack would be "a giant time machine that would move us back in technology a century". Bartlett is on EMPACT's board.
Outside the Republican Party, the campaign in the US to get EMP on the defence agenda is viewed through lenses of bemusement and suspicion. Quoted in the June edition of The New Republic, Joe Cirincione, a nuclear weapons expert at pro-disarmament think tank, argued calls for disaster preparations were dramatised.
"It's horror theatre," he said. "Trying to scare Americans into doing something which a rational analysis would stop them from doing."
The most frequently imagined delivery mechanism for an EMP attack is a missile, which would carry a nuke high into the atmosphere before detonating. It's perhaps worth noting that Avi Schnurr's Israeli lobby group's stated aim is to promote the US' proposed missile defence system. ®