The Threat No One Cares About

One of the last meetings I had in office was with three scientists from the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Attack.  As they briefed me about the threat and impact of an electromagnetic pulse (“EMP”) attack upon our country, it was clear these were desperate men.  

Working under a 2001 Congressional mandate, these scientists were making the rounds at various three letter agencies sounding a tocsin of warning about the catastrophic consequences of the little known and poorly understood threat of an EMP attack against our nation.

An EMP is created by the detonation of a nuclear payload in the upper Earth atmosphere. That changes the atomic makeup of oxygen and nitrogen molecules.   The electrons released from these molecules as a result of a nuclear explosion can cause a magnetic pulse that produces voltage surges in electric devices that will disable them permanently. In essence, an EMP can, in a nanosecond, fry the insides of most electrical appliances and other electrically powered machines rendering them permanently useless. What that means to societies thousands of miles from ground zero is a total disruption of electric power from power plants to handheld devices.

EMP events can also occur naturally from changes in the sun’s thermal activity. Whether caused naturally by the sun or artificially by the detonation of a nuclear warhead on an intercontinental ballistic missile, the results can be a veritable game-changer for society.

My guests that day educated me on the threat, the impact of a successful EMP attack on our wired society, and what our government was doing to combat the problem. Their discussion of the former topic was detailed and insightful. Their discussion of the latter topic, US response planning for the threat, was brief and alarming. Indeed, what the US was doing to prepare for this threat could be summed up in two words: not much. From the time I had my introduction to the EMP threat in 2008 until today, the United States has remained practically and negligently unprepared to deal with the challenge.

These were desperate men.

For a time there was some talk that an enemy like North Korea could fire a crude nuclear warhead launched from a submarine in the South Pacific over the southwestern United States and detonate it in the upper atmosphere with the desired effect of eliminating a good portion of our power grid west of the Rockies. Since the North Koreans had yet to perfect a nuclear weapon that could survive re-entry, all they would need to do would be to send it high, detonate it, and let the so-called games begin.

Recent rumors of rapprochement with Kim Jung Un’s Democratic Republic of North Korea may make that scenario unlikely, but there are still other would be malefactors who could attempt an attack such as a re-embargoed and nuclear aspirant Iran. Even if the genesis of an EMP attack is not man-made, but purely a solar phenomenon, the fact remains that our nation is not prepared to address the ramifications of such an attack upon the homeland.

With our nation now inextricably wired every level, an EMP attack could bring our critical infrastructure to a crashing halt: disconnect us from our computers, cell phones, and handheld devices, disable our air traffic control system, cripple our banking and financial system, and paralyze our hospitals, schools, and emergency services. The result would be to shut down society as we know it, throwing the country into a pre-Industrial Age dystopian gloom.

Since the day I met with those desperate scientists in 2008, little has changed; they are still desperate. What can and must happen is for the country to become more aware of the threat and to take needed action that will address the problem. What can be done? First, the public needs to be made aware that the dreaded nuclear winter can come just as easily via a low tech EMP explosion or a solar hiccup as it can from a full-blown nuclear war. Indeed, public awareness of the threat is low with most Americans totally ignorant of it. Raising public awareness will also kick-start a discussion of palliative measures that can be followed to mitigate the impact of an EMP strike. One such measure overdue for discussion is to consider taking critical assets such as military bases and emergency services off the grid. Introducing solar power, wind and geothermal power sources where practical at military bases would ensure that these key facilities would remain up and running should an EMP attack occur.

Another action that needs to be taken now is to increase information sharing on the EMP threat with state and local governments and the private sector. Just as state and local government were “read into” counter-terrorism intelligence after the 9/11 attacks, so too should the federal government build up a series of information sharing protocols with the states, the cities and private industry on the EMP threat. This isn’t rocket science, as most of the work has already been trail-blazed by the US intelligence community, the state and locals and the private sector in response to the terrorist threat.

Of course, responders must be trained to deal with this threat.  A tabletop exercise built around an EMP hit on the Continental United States would not be hard to build and would allow participants from all levels of government to participate. Table top exercises often called “war games” are highly didactic and if conducted properly can function like a 3-Dimensional GAP analysis to show where our response to an EMP attack is weak and in need of immediate improvement. We do these every day in the counter-terrorism world, so again the fix is not that hard to do.

Lastly, we need to pay better attention to our missile defense capabilities. As Americans, we think little of the defense umbrella provided by NORTHCOM. But even this umbrella needs some upgrades. With our anti-missile missiles not yet achieving at least an 80% knockdown rate, we need to enhance our ability to detect and shoot down suspicious airborne threats that could be carrying an EMP triggering device. Recently Congress authorized $13.8 billion for missile defense. This is a good start, but it needs to be followed on in the out years by other appropriations to maintain our lethality in defending the air and the space above the United States.

It’s been ten years since I met with those desperate scientists in my Washington, D.C. office. We needed to address the EMP threat to the homeland in 2008 as we need to address it in 2018. Unfortunately, our government has remained pretty much quiet about the threat, yet those scientists are still desperate. Isn’t ten years too long to live life in quiet desperation?