“Critical infrastructure keeps our food fresh, our houses warm, our trade flowing, and our citizens productive and safe. The vulnerability of U.S. critical infrastructure to cyber, physical and electromagnetic attacks means that adversaries could disrupt military command and control, banking and financial operations, the electrical grid and means of communication.”
– President Donald Trump, identifying the most serious existential threats to Americans in his National Security Strategy statement, Dec. 18, 2017

It is difficult to state more succinctly this urgent problem, particularly the president’s reference to electromagnetic attacks. Lethargic federal efforts have left critical infrastructure – particularly the electric power grid – vulnerable to a natural or man-made electromagnetic pulse (EMP).

The federal government’s dysfunctionality suggests these threats must be addressed from the bottom up. If enough citizens gain an understanding of these vulnerabilities and that they can, and must, be addressed, then they may awaken Washington to act more effectively.

VULNERABILITY OF THE GRID On April 21, 2017, solar activity allegedly triggered nearly concurrent grid outages in New York City, Los Angeles and San Francisco – jamming traffic, stranding people in elevators, forcing hospitals to use backup generators and causing disruptions until power was restored. Even if coincidental, they are grist for learning important lessons.

Joseph Weiss, an international authority on cybersecurity, control systems and system security, observed that San Francisco’s seven-hour outage was due to “cascading effects” triggered by a single breaker in the allegedly low-impact Larkin Street Substation. Given long-well-known root causes, like thermally overloaded transmission lines, he said this local event should raise red flags at the Department of Energy (DoE), the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and the North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC), which are failing to protect the U.S. electric system from sudden threats, including EMP.

That San Francisco’s grid failures could cascade from a single, relatively minor event brings to mind conclusions by former FERC chairman Jon Wellinghoff following the 2013 assault-rifle attack on San Jose’s Metcalf Substation that forced an urgent rerouting of power to Silicon Valley and caused an estimated $15 million in damage. 

Reportedly, the perpetrators cut several fiber-optic cables linking the substation with others in the local grid, but missed one that permitted the rebalancing. Had it too been cut, all of Silicon Valley might have shut down indefinitely. Similar cascading failures from only nine identifiable substations could take down the entire U.S. electric grid for months, Wellinghoff said. 

The Larkin Street Substation was enclosed in a structure that would have shown evidence of a terrorist attack by gunfire, like in San Jose; as Weiss implied, such a physical attack would not have been effective. But radio-frequency weapons could have triggered similar failures.

Simultaneous attacks could be planned nationwide, but nearly concurrent events on the East and West coasts in 2017 could reflect the U.K.’s Sun warning that “a mega hole in the sun could cause blackout mayhem” due to its “belching” of radioactive particles toward the earth. Such “space weather” effects are somewhat understood and expected but are not predictable.

NATURAL AND MAN-MADE EMP So-called solar hole events last longer but cause less damage than would a major coronal mass ejection (CME) like the 1859 Carrington Event that produced a major geomagnetic disturbance (GMD) damaging and destroying telegraph lines, including the first undersea telegraph cable. It had little effect on that low-tech agrarian society but today would cause catastrophic damage to unhardened critical infrastructure, particularly the electric power grid. 

We dodged such an event in 2012, when the earth orbited past lethal solar particles about a week later. Scientists who study space weather or so-called natural EMP project a 12-percent-per-decade likelihood for another Carrington-like event. It is certain to happen again; only its timing is unknown. 

While current efforts (however meritorious) seek to protect the power grid from natural EMP events, little is being done to protect it from much more stressful man-made EMP, caused by nuclear weapons detonated high in, or above, the atmosphere. 

Protecting our critical infrastructure from man-made EMP will protect it from natural EMP. But the converse is not true. A natural EMP does not include high-frequency components that threaten solid-state electronics like the supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems that control the electric grid and natural gas and petroleum pipelines.

On July 9, 1962, we discovered the importance of EMP effects from a 1.4-megaton hydrogen bomb detonated 250 miles above the South Pacific. It would have created blast effects equivalent to 1.4 million tons of TNT if detonated within the atmosphere – 100 times the yield of the atomic weapons detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

About 900 miles away in Hawaii, spectators anticipated man-made aurora effects, but unanticipated, invisible features were more impressive and consequential. Street lights failed, TVs and vacuum tube radios malfunctioned, power lines fused, and about half our low-altitude satellites were damaged. Today’s unhardened semiconductor microelectronics would suffer much more damage.

Regrettably, we had poor instrumentation to study the aftereffects in part because we were unprepared. In 1961, the Soviets broke the 1958 nuclear test moratorium and conducted a much better planned and equipped high-altitude nuclear test series in Kazakhstan, over populated areas that included state-of-the-art supporting electronic infrastructure. U.S. scientists responded with a hurried high-altitude test series of their own, cut short by the 1963 atmospheric test ban. 

That test demonstrated our strategic system vulnerabilities, and EMP effects became highly classified. Then, without the benefits of such testing, theoretical studies sought to understand the previously unanticipated phenomena, and we used EMP simulation testing to assure our strategic systems’ survivability.  

For example, we built at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico an all-wood, nonconducting trestle on which we tested strategic aircraft such as the B-52. We conducted other simulation tests of our Minuteman silo intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) systems and their supporting command, control and communication systems. But we did not address the vulnerability of civil infrastructure on which all Americans depend. 

THE EMP COMMISSION In the late 1990s, Congress, led by Reps. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md., and Curt Weldon, R-Pa., sought to understand the threat and underwrite actions to protect the American people. Congress formed the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack, or Congressional EMP Commission, which briefed a closed session of Congress in 2004 on the threatening and still highly classified facts. 

The commission was reinstated in 2006 and in 2008 published more information in an unclassified report. But key analyses remained secret, even as commissioners openly warned that most Americans might die following an extended grid shutdown caused by an EMP. The commission was reinstated again in 2015 but was stalled and disbanded by Congress at the end of 2017, largely due to lethargy and resistance within the Department of Defense (DoD).

The EMP commissioners were the nation’s most competent and technically credible source of advice on this threat for 17 years, and disbanding them was a terrible decision. Their final reports are still tied up in DoD security reviews, withheld from the public – and from power companies seeking to harden critical infrastructure. 

So, we understood a half century ago the nature of the EMP threat and how to counter it, at least for some key military systems and associated civil infrastructure – but far from all. Private-sector engineers need this knowledge to protect all Americans from EMP threats.

A RAPIDLY MATURING THREAT The military doctrines and planning of Russia, China, North Korea and Iran include EMP threats. 

High-yield nuclear weapons, such as those tested from 1961 and 1963, are not required to produce extensive and intensive EMP effects. Indeed, senior Russian generals told EMP commissioners in 2004 that Russia “accidentally” passed to North Korea information on how to build low-yield “super EMP” weapons and that it would probably develop such weapons in a few years. 

North Korea’s numerous low-yield nuclear tests could underwrite Kim Jong-un’s stated strategic goal of obtaining EMP attack weapons.

Our intelligence community reportedly judges that North Korea has up to 60 nuclear weapons and has tested a 150-kiloton H-bomb – and an ICBM that can reach any U.S. city. Some apologists claim to not worry because North Korea must still demonstrate it can penetrate the atmosphere with sufficient accuracy to destroy a distant city. But an EMP attack above the atmosphere would not need atmospheric penetration or accuracy. 

And Iran likely knows whatever its ally North Korea knows and can buy it if so desired. Thus, North Korea and Iran may now or soon have low-yield “super EMP” weapons – which could explain North Korea’s low-yield underground nuclear tests.

Both nations could also deliver EMP attacks by detonating nuclear weapons carried by satellites. They have successfully launched satellites that initially approached the United States from its undefended south. Such launches are a steppingstone to developing ICBMs – but they could also execute an EMP attack.

The EMP Commission reported that Iran launched a ballistic missile from a barge in the Caspian Sea in the late 1990s and transmitted electronic signals, suggesting a simulated nuclear detonation at altitudes up to about 400 kilometers (240 miles), possibly training for a devastating EMP strike. 

To date, the United States has not deployed a ballistic missile defense (BMD) system to counter this threat, which could originate on a vessel off shore, including in the Gulf of Mexico.

MISSILE DEFENSE ROLE Trump’s National Security Strategy stated in December that the United States is deploying “a layered missile defense system focused on North Korea and Iran to defend our homeland against missile attacks.” He emphasized the role of Aegis BMD ships, which have demonstrated they can stop missile/satellite attacks if operated by appropriately trained and authorized crews. 

Aegis BMD ships do not operate in the Gulf of Mexico, but Aegis Ashore BMD sites, as in Romania and Poland, can be built on military bases around the gulf to defend against such an attack. (An Aegis Ashore system has the same components of the Aegis BMD system, just assembled on the ground.) Japan reportedly is also purchasing two Aegis Ashore sites to defend against North Korea’s ballistic missiles, complementing its several Aegis BMD ships. Congress and the president should give our Aegis BMD ships a homeland defense mission when they are near U.S. coastal waters or in port.

In addition to improving our deployed ground-based homeland defense, we should develop the most cost-effective BMD systems considered in the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) era (1983 to 1993) – those based in space. They can intercept ballistic missiles launched essentially anywhere, beginning in their boost phase, while their rockets still burn, all the way to when their nuclear payloads are re-entering the upper atmosphere.

This cost-effective BMD concept was known as “Brilliant Pebbles,” a program that the Clinton administration abruptly cancelled in 1993. With needed funding and management, I believe a less expensive, more capable system using today’s
more advanced technology can be deployed within five years.

Such rapid development could help satisfy the concerns of Air Force Gen. John Hyten, who heads Strategic Command. He has clearly identified U.S. vulnerability to the existential EMP threat and that we need new acquisition processes to more rapidly deploy capabilities, including space-based missile defenses.

HARDEN THE GRID No defense is perfect, so we should “harden” at least key components of our critical civil infrastructure, especially the electric power grid, against the full complement of threats. And if any adversary mounts an EMP attack, we should expect a pre-emptive combination of cyber, physical, radiofrequency and other attacks to confuse and weaken our response. 

The Obama administration mandated protecting the grid against a major solar storm that will surely one day occur – a natural EMP event. But such hardening efforts will not protect the grid from man-made EMP or other threats posed by terrorists or rogue regimes. We should address the man-made nuclear EMP threat and natural geomagnetic disturbances with competently executed, integrated initiatives from the bottom up, beginning at the local level. Such efforts should also protect against physical, cyber and radiofrequency attacks.

Some of these threats and failures of the past were identified in an April 20, 2017, letter from EMP Commission Chairman William R. Graham to Secretary of Energy Rick Perry. He emphasized that EMP is the ultimate cyberweapon of Russia, China, North Korea and Iran, all of which see combined arms cyberwarfare as a decisive revolution in military affairs. Protecting the grid from nuclear EMP attack helps mitigate lesser threats, including natural EMP from solar storms, non-nuclear EMP from radiofrequency weapons, cyberattacks, physical sabotage and severe weather.

Graham also emphasized “islanding” portions of the electric grid by hardening methods to protect local areas, and even individual states as part of a larger regional grid, from a prolonged catastrophic blackout. This method is being used to improve grid viability of the counties around Rock Hill, S.C., and Charlotte, N.C. – home of Duke Energy, one of the nation’s largest energy companies.

In his letter, Graham warned Perry that EMP commissioners were profoundly concerned that the 2014 intelligence community assessment of nuclear EMP was erroneous, “perhaps the worst ever produced on EMP,” dismissing the threat despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. This concern still exists.

WHAT NOW My May 4, 2017, testimony to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee emphasized:

  • DoD has understood the nature of the EMP threat and how to counter it for a half century. But its agencies have blocked progress by stalling the initial startup of the last congressionally re-established EMP commission by a year, inhibiting its effective operation, and restricting publication of its reports – particularly to electric power companies now seeking to develop, deploy and maintain effective hardening designs. 
  • DoE laboratories and other agencies are trying to relearn lessons mastered by DoD nearly a half century ago. And without associated realistic testing, current efforts can easily – and have predictably – run amok. 
  • Political/bureaucratic problems create mission conflicts between DoD and other government departments and agencies, such as the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). A few years ago, the commander of Northern Command (NORTHCOM) recognized the EMP threat by hardening the infrastructure used to warn U.S. strategic forces and the president of impending attacks. Almost $1 billion reportedly was being spent to harden and move key equipment to his Cheyenne Mountain command center. 

However, DoD is not responsible for protecting the nation’s civil infrastructure, as once it was. From World War II to the Carter administration, such civil defense was a DoD responsibility – but then it was transferred to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, initially in DoE and to DHS after 9/11.

Now, DoD – especially NORTHCOM – has only a supporting role to DHS in protecting the electric power grid, even though most DoD infrastructure depends on its viability when under EMP attack. 

DHS is not preparing the nation’s emergency managers (federal, state and local) to deal with EMP. And no one below the president is responsible for an integrated response to the EMP threat.

Some state initiatives have been positive in the absence of Washington’s leadership, but as yet none has been completely successful. About three years ago, I became frustrated by this process and decided to try to work the issue from the bottom up in South Carolina, beginning at the local level.

I approached the chairman of the Electrical Engineering Department at my alma mater, Clemson University, and through his contacts joined forces with Duke Energy to address the EMP threat to the grid. I have not, and will not, sell anything to or for Duke and would not accept its money if offered. I just want to cut through the morass and provide hope that my grandchildren can survive an EMP attack. 

Duke engineers are concerned about this threat and agreed to conduct a bottom-up program to assure the viability of its hydroelectric, nuclear and coal power plants and associated grid infrastructure around Lake Wylie (on the Catawba River that runs between North and South Carolina) that interconnects those plants and others to customers. We refer to this as the “Lake Wylie Pilot Study.” I began this effort with several biases, based on a lifetime of experiences that guide my assessments and recommendations:

  • We will never confidently harden the entire grid, so we have to establish priorities. I give top priority to assuring the safety and viability of the 100 nuclear power plants that produce about 20 percent of U.S. electricity and half the electricity in my home state of South Carolina. In building protected “islands” around these plants, we must first be certain their cooling water systems can function in an indefinite grid shutdown, to avoid a Fukushima-like disaster.
  • We must assure sufficient generating and loading conditions are available from the surrounding grid to restart power plants, which will shut down to protect themselves if the grid goes down. 
  • I don’t believe in anything that isn’t regularly tested and subjected to independent critical review. Effective testing and maintenance are major challenges that must be overcome.
  • Accomplishing these objectives requires considerable cooperation at the local level, without which there is little hope for most citizens who depend on electricity for lifeline services in a just-in-time economy.

Duke Energy intends to assure that its power plants are functional after an EMP attack, but we must assure that Duke-provided electricity makes its way to York County citizens via infrastructure owned and operated by a Rock Hill utility
company and York County cooperatives. We seek to assure viable water/wastewater infrastructure, especially for the main York County hospital. Without water, patients die quickly. 

In any case, our efforts should serve as a pattern that can be followed by over 1,500 electric utilities and co-ops key to delivering electricity to their subscribers throughout the nation. We also intend to work closely with the National Guard and adjutants general across the United States because of their key related roles.

Trump should improve these conditions, preferably under provisions of an executive order that establishes authoritative leadership in the White House, with access to him and a charter to recommend how best he should integrate the disparate elements of the currently dysfunctional federal government and its efforts to support associated state and local efforts to protect Americans against EMP damage.

If this is done, the effective design, deployment and operation of a complex system requires a competent “red team” with access to all design, deployment and operations information, which can challenge all efforts and report findings to top management. This function should also be led by the White House.  

Henry F. Cooper, an Air Force veteran with an engineering Ph.D., is chairman of High Frontier, a nonprofit organization focused on defenses against ballistic missile attack with a particular interest in protecting the U.S. electric power grid. He was President Ronald Reagan’s ambassador and chief negotiator at the Geneva Defense and Space Talks, and Strategic Defense Initiative director under President George H.W. Bush.