Members of the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse Attack recently informed Congress that “the nation faces a potentially imminent and existential threat of nuclear EMP attack from North Korea.”
Such an attack, carried out by a nuclear device detonated high above the central part of the continental United States, could fry the U.S. electric-power grid and lead to the deaths of some 90 percent of the U.S. population. Even a smaller-scale EMP attack, carried out by a warhead detonated at low altitude above the eastern seaboard “could blackout the Eastern Electric Power Grid that supports most of the population and generates 75 percent of U.S. electricity.”
As former CIA director James Woolsey concludes, “The EMP threat is as real as the sun and ... as real as nuclear threats from Russia, China, North Korea and Iran.”
Some observers dismiss the threat posed by North Korea and Iran, arguing that these third-rate regional powers could do little to harm U.S. territory or the American people. But as Peter Pry, who served on the EMP Commission, points out, “The military doctrines of Russia, China, North Korea and Iran describe a revolutionary new kind of warfare that would use cyberattacks and physical sabotage, combined and coordinated with EMP attack, to blackout the national electric grid and crash the other critical infrastructures.”
While Russia and China are responsive to deterrence and the threat of overwhelming retaliation, a paranoid Pyongyang and a terrorist Tehran may not be.
William Graham, who chaired the EMP Commission, explains that “North Korea could make an EMP attack against the United States by launching a short-range missile off a freighter or submarine or by lofting a warhead to 30-km burst height by balloon. While such lower-altitude EMP attacks would not cover the whole U.S. mainland, as would an attack at higher-altitude (300 km), even a balloon-lofted warhead detonated at 30 kilometers altitude could blackout the Eastern Grid.” According to Pry, “North Korea has actually practiced this against the United States.”
Likewise, the Iranian military has contemplated such an attack against the U.S. homeland. “We have data indicating that the Iranians have launched their versions of Scuds off of the Caspian Sea – not from land, but from the sea – and launched them over land,” Graham explained in a Forbes interview. “We’ve also seen them launch missiles that have gone up and apparently exploded near their highest altitude -- when you put those two ideas together -- that is an EMP attack.”
The immediate effects of an EMP attack would be no different than power outages triggered by severe weather. But imagine those outages lasting for months -- and then imagine those outages being spread across 30 states. It’s the stuff of nightmares.
As the Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies recently detailed, radios and TVs, heating and air conditioning, cellphones, computers, landline phones, most cars built after 1980, sewer and water pumps, and vast swaths of the power grid would cease to work after an EMP event. And they would be out of service for months, throwing our technology-dependent economy society back to the 1800s.
If the attack happened in the winter, millions would be left exposed to brutal cold. In the summer, millions would suffer the effects of heat and humidity. Water supply would be compromised. Our networked just-in-time food and fuel distribution system would be crippled. Without fuel, farms wouldn’t be able to gather food, and trucks wouldn’t be able to deliver food and other basic goods. Without refrigeration, food reserves would spoil. Essential communications for transportation, emergency services, public safety and national defense would fail.
Add it all up, and an EMP attack “has the potential to be a catastrophic event that could result in paralyzing the U.S. electric grid and other key infrastructures that rely on the electric grid to function,” concludes Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., who chairs a subcommittee of the House Homeland Security Committee.
It’s worth noting that U.S. citizens and cities have already been hit by an EMP. It happened in 1962, in Hawaii, when the U.S. military test-detonated a nuclear warhead 248 miles above Johnston Island. Immediately after the blast, something unexpected occurred 900 miles away: Telephone lines, power lines and electrical systems shorted out on the Hawaiian Islands.
Similarly, the Soviet military conducted nuclear tests over Kazakhstan in 1961 and 1962, which fried the entire Kazakh electric grid – an area about the size of Western Europe.
The EMP threat isn’t limited to nuclear blasts: Solar flares can trigger a “geomagnetic storm” that can have the same effect as a high-altitude EMP blast, which explains why Woolsey dryly observes that the EMP threat is “as real as the sun.” Disruptive solar flares have hit the earth many times; two of the worst solar-flare events happened in 1921 and 1859. The 1859 flare – known as the Carrington Event – destroyed telegraph lines around the world, as The Atlantic reports. A similar event today would affect upward of 130 million people and cost $2 trillion, according to The Atlantic’s analysis.
Yet with perhaps one exception, the United States finds itself less equipped and less prepared for an EMP attack or a solar-flare EMP event, even as the nation has become more dependent on the electronic devices and electric grid such an event would destroy.
The exception: The Pentagon is relocating key communications assets to Cheyenne Mountain and pouring nearly $1 billion into NORAD’s Cold War bunker. “Since 2013, the Pentagon has awarded contracts worth more than $850 million for work related to Cheyenne Mountain,” DefenseOne reports. “Because of the very nature of the way that Cheyenne Mountain is built, it’s EMP-hardened,” explains Adm. William Gortney, former commander of NORTHCOM and NORAD.
The Pentagon’s example illustrates that the United States can – if it summons the will – prepare for and guard against destructive EMP events.
Toward that end, Graham and his colleagues urged President Obama to pursue “emergency deployment of cost-effective missile defense systems” to provide a first line of defense against North Korea’s and Iran’s missile capabilities, called for “protection of electric-grid control rooms at regional balancing authorities” and “critical Extra High Voltage transformers” across the country, and called on Washington to ensure that “all high-priority critical infrastructures when upgraded or replaced ... be subject to nuclear EMP protection standard.”
In their testimony before Congress this fall, Graham and Pry urged President Trump “to post Aegis ships in the Gulf of Mexico and near the east and west coasts ... to intercept missiles launched from freighters, submarines or other platforms that might make a nuclear EMP attack on the United States” and “to develop a space-surveillance program to detect if any satellites orbited over the United States are nuclear-armed.”
In a similar vein, the EMP Coalition – with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich leading the way – has challenged government and industry to work together to harden the grid with the equivalent of industrial-scale surge protectors at key points in the grid. So-called “Faraday Cages” -- boxes that absorb electrical current – could be installed at key junctures. In addition, as The Atlantic reports, government and industry need to have replacement parts, such as industrial-scale transformers, at the ready.
In a similar vein, a 2016 Legion resolution urged Washington “to fully fund, develop and deploy a national ballistic missile defense system designed to intercept EMP attacks ... to swiftly commission the further development and installation of electronic equipment and components resistant to EMP ... (and) to expeditiously develop an EMP response plan to include necessary back-up systems and corresponding supply of electronic parts and equipment vital to a successful American defense and response in the event of such an attack.”
We could learn a lot from how previous generations of Americans prepared for and responded to threats.
President Washington called on Congress to choose “preparation and vigor” over complacency, and to summon the will “to do what our abilities and the circumstance of our finance may well justify.”
President Eisenhower cited national security in rallying support for the interstate highway system: “In case of an atomic attack on our key cities, the road net must permit quick evacuation of target areas, mobilization of defense forces and maintenance of every essential economic function.”
President Reagan established – and his administration rehearsed – detailed continuity-of-government contingency planning to ensure the survival of the republic after a Soviet attack.
These leaders understood the importance of preparedness and resiliency – and the need for action.
Estimates for hardening the grid against EMP events – whether hostile or naturally occurring – range up to $20 billion, which seems a small price to pay to protect and secure something on which our entire way of life depends.
Yet the White House and the Congress “have done nothing to protect the electric grid from a long-term blackout,” Pry has noted.
Equally worrisome: Last September – in the very same month the Pentagon terminated funding for the EMP Commission – members of the commission ominously reported that “North Korea detonated an H-bomb that it plausibly describes as capable of ‘super-powerful EMP’ attack.”