Executive Order Highlights Electromagnetic Pulse Threat
In March, President Donald Trump signed an “Executive Order on Coordinating National Resilience to Electromagnetic Pulses,” which many observers see as an important step in confronting an unconventional threat that could wreak havoc on the United States.
An electromagnetic pulse, or EMP, is an intense burst of energy that can be released by a nuclear weapon detonated high in the atmosphere, or by a geomagnetic disturbance caused by natural phenomena such as solar flares.
Consider this scenario that some analysts have envisioned: An electromagnetic pulse hits the nation’s electric grid. The power goes out across a large swath of the country, communication systems and other critical infrastructure are disrupted, military readiness is degraded, chaos ensues and many people die.
That is a nightmare situation that the U.S. government is making a new concerted push to avoid.
“It is the policy of the United States to prepare for the effects of EMPs through targeted approaches that coordinate whole-of-government activities and encourage private sector engagement,” Trump’s directive stated.
The federal government must provide warning; protect against, respond to and recover from the effects of electromagnetic pulses through planning, investment and stakeholder engagement; and prevent EMP attacks through deterrence, defensive capabilities and nuclear nonproliferation efforts, the order said. It called for prioritizing research and development to address the needs of critical infrastructure stakeholders, and implementing pilot programs.
The executive order provided a list of implementation instructions to the Departments of Homeland Security, Defense, Energy, Commerce and State, and the Director of National Intelligence. It also put the assistant to the president for national security affairs and the National Security Council in charge of coordinating the executive branch’s efforts.
For years, experts and advocacy groups have been sounding the alarm about the possibility of a far-reaching, disastrous incident.
“An electromagnetic pulse … poses a direct threat to the U.S. electric grid and the products, services and activities that depend on access to electricity,” Heritage Foundation analysts warned in a policy paper published last year titled, “The Danger of EMP Requires Innovative and Strategic Action.”
“An EMP could cause widespread failure of the electric grids of entire regions, grinding the U.S. economy to a halt,” the authors added. “Without electricity, almost nothing will work, which means that millions of people will die as a result of not being able to refill medical prescriptions, millions more will be without food, and predictable rioting and looting can quickly create a state of anarchy.”
A loss of electric cooling for nuclear power plant reactors and spent fuel pools could expose Americans to dangerous levels of radiation, warned a report by the military-civilian Electromagnetic Defense Task Force, citing the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan as a cautionary tale.
The Heritage Foundation policy paper noted that a high-altitude EMP attack could also temporarily or permanently damage satellites — most of which are not hardened to withstand its effects.
Critical civilian infrastructure aren’t the only assets at risk. The U.S. military could also be vulnerable.
“From an adversary’s standpoint, military installations represent the vulnerable underbelly of the defense enterprise,” the Electromagnetic Defense Task Force said in a self-titled report published last year by the Air Force’s Air University.
An installation’s ability to maintain connectivity would depend on the nature and severity of an EMP incident. But in all likelihood, the facility would be unable to continue uninterrupted operations within a short period of time in the absence of a cohesive response and sustainment plan, the study said.
Installation response plans often omit EMP contingencies from planning and programs, it noted.
“In many cases, an interruption of [command-and-control systems] could lead to a degraded ability to bring organic mission capabilities to bear for national defense or civil recovery operations,” the report said.
Nevertheless, U.S. efforts to understand and address the EMP threat have been limited by insufficient information sharing, coordination and investment among different parts of the government and the private sector, analysts say.
Trump’s new directive aimed at addressing the problem was well received by non-governmental observers.
“It gives the issue more prominence and more visibility within the departmental agencies,” said Michaela Dodge, a defense analyst at the Heritage Foundation who co-authored the think tank’s policy paper. “It’s fairly specific as to which agencies do what. It puts time pressure on accomplishing what the executive order demands. And so I do believe it’s a step in the right direction.”
So far, the United States hasn’t been very successful in terms of organizing its government to deal with the EMP threat, she said. The executive order “is very positive and a large contribution to the way we sort of deal with that problem,” she added.
Duke Energy, one of the nation’s largest electric power companies, said it also views Trump’s directive as a positive step. “We are pleased with the efforts to coalesce activities of the various federal entities and the focus on non-classified research to understand the [potential EMP] impacts better,” a spokesperson said in an email to National Defense.
However, there is disagreement among observers about the magnitude of the threat and what should be done to address it.
Trump administration officials have said there is no intelligence indicating that an EMP attack is imminent.
However, William Graham, the chairman of the congressionally-chartered Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse Attack, has said that EMPs represent an “immediate, existential” danger that could wipe out a large fraction of the U.S. population through the effects of starvation, disease and societal collapse.
The Heritage Foundation policy paper described electromagnetic pulse events as “low probability” but “high risk” scenarios.
But others are warning against overreaction.
“EMPs are by no means one of the top-tier national security challenges, nor the most pressing concern for the safety of our electrical grid,” Gregory T. Kiley, a former senior staff member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and U.S. Air Force officer, said in a recent op-ed published by The Hill.
Trump’s executive order is reasonable but “we must also be vigilant to ensure the EMP threat is not overblown and thereby dedicate limited resources to a highly unlikely threat,” he added.
In April, the nonprofit Electric Power Research Institute released the results of a three-year study titled, “High-Altitude Electromagnetic Pulse and the Bulk Power Systems: Potential Impacts and Mitigation Strategies.”
EMP fields can impact large areas. One stemming from a detonation of a nuclear weapon at an altitude of 200 kilometers could affect a circular area equivalent to 3 million square miles, the report said. However, the strength of the EMP field would dissipate the farther away it was from ground zero, it noted.
The study concluded that a high-altitude electromagnetic pulse, or HEMP, attack similar to the ones that were modeled could cause regional disruptions or voltage collapse.
However, “research findings do not support the notion of blackouts encompassing the contiguous United States and lasting for many months to years,” the report said.
Recovery times for a HEMP-induced blackout would be commensurate with historical large-scale blackouts if robust protections for grid components are deployed. However, additional research is needed to address remaining uncertainties about electromagnetic pulse effects, the report said.
The Secure the Grid Coalition — which includes former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former CIA Director James Woolsey — and the EMP Task Force on National and Homeland Security issued a joint statement dismissing the EPRI findings as “junk science,” and accused the organization of underestimating the threat to serve the interests of the electric power industry.
Paul Scharre, director of the technology and national security program at the Center for a New American Security, said U.S. military assets could be vulnerable to electromagnetic pulses because most of them aren’t hardened against that type of threat. But the Pentagon should be more focused on other, more likely methods of enemy attack, he added.
“It wouldn’t be at the top of my agenda,” Scharre said. “I’m really more concerned about cyber and more traditional kinetic attacks on those DoD infrastructures than something more exotic like a high-altitude EMP.”
As of press time, the Defense Department had not provided comment for this story.
Studies have recommended a number of steps to protect critical infrastructure against electromagnetic pulses including: various methods of equipment shielding and surge protection; adding “firebreaks” to the national electric grid to limit the scope of damages and power outages; and investments in boost phase and space-based missile defense technology that could shoot down enemy nuclear-armed ballistic missiles before they were able to release an EMP.
Scharre said EMPs raise interesting questions about deterrence because the pulses wouldn’t kill people directly. “You would have sort of this non-kinetic attack where the [nuclear] blast wouldn’t kill anyone. It would be disrupting the infrastructure, but that might have second order effects that could lead to mayhem and death and other problems.”
It’s unclear how U.S. policymakers would react, he said.
“Would it be seen as a nuclear event or as a non-kinetic event? Is it something that’s either worse than a conventional bomb [attack] or less than a conventional bomb [attack]?” he asked.
“There’s just no good way to know how big the effect would be as well as how people would respond,” he added. “It’s one of the reasons why you do worry that it could be appealing to an [enemy] actor if they might see it as a cheap way to disable U.S. electrical infrastructure or disrupt the United States in a way that there was a perception that it was less escalatory than a more traditional form of attack.”
The situation is further complicated by the fact that geomagnetic disturbances are natural phenomena that, unlike a nation-state actor, cannot be deterred militarily.
“It seems like a low probability event and I think it’s easy to be dismissive, but it’s probably a prudent measure to shore up the resilience of our electrical grid,” Scharre said.
If there were a geomagnetic disturbance and a large section of the country lost power for a period of time, people would be angry that the government hadn’t done more to prepare, he said. “It can look like hype and people overreacting [to the threat] until one of those events occurs, and then everyone wants to know why didn’t we act sooner.”
Dodge noted that bolstering defenses against electromagnetic pulses will come with a price tag.
“There is a great deal we can do,” she said. “The question is how to fund it and who pays for what?”
Trump’s executive order noted that the federal government must foster efficient, cost-effective approaches to enhance resiliency.
In a 2017 report for the EMP Commission, Graham said protecting and defending the national electric grid and other critical infrastructures from electromagnetic pulses could be achieved at reasonable cost and with minimal disruption to existing systems.
Scharre said electric companies and other stakeholders might be reluctant to spend large amounts of money hardening their assets. Measures that make systems more resilient and robust add costs, and they are expenses that don’t add value for businesses and shareholders on a day-to-day basis, he noted.
The government could end up funding those measures directly or creating incentives for companies to do so through tax breaks or other means, Scharre said.
The Heritage Foundation policy paper said critical national defense assets that rely on the electric grid should be hardened by the federal government at the expense of taxpayers, and utilities should be allowed to recover costs for EMP-related investments.
“It’s a little bit silly to assume that the private market will automatically step in and do things when there is not a profit incentive to do so,” Scharre said. “It’s going to require some government involvement to make that happen.”