Four days before Halloween, National Geographic aired the docudrama "American Blackout." This fictionalized account of a cyberattack on the electric grid depicts some of the horrific consequences of a nationwide blackout lasting 10 days.
People are trapped in elevators and become virtual prisoners in their high-rise apartment buildings. Gasoline is rationed to the military and hospitals so the average American has no transportation — except for his legs. Food and water become so scarce that there is a life-and-death struggle over a can of peaches. Before Day 10 of the blackout, society starts breaking down into anarchy as gangs and vigilante groups run wild. One of the heroes of the docudrama — a survivalist who is prepared for anything and does everything right except for one seemingly small and humane mistake — is about to have his throat cut when electricity suddenly returns on Day 10.
National Geographic is to be applauded for "American Blackout," which is essentially a training film to educate the American people about the very real threat posed to their lives by a cyberattack on the electric grid. If there is any fault or fantasy in the docudrama, it is that the blackout lasts only 10 days, and recovery is achieved quickly.
In real life, terrorists or rogue states would probably not limit their attack on the nation's electric grid to computer viruses or hacking, as implied in the docudrama. They would also use other more destructive means that could cause a protracted national blackout lasting months or years.
An electromagnetic pulse (EMP) is a dimension of the cyberthreat that is in the information-warfare playbooks of Iran, North Korea, China and Russia. A single nuclear weapon detonated at high altitude over the United States could collapse the national electric grid, not merely for 10 days, but for months, years or permanently.
Electromagnetic pulse is the ultimate cyberthreat.
It is vitally important that we understand that a nuclear electromagnetic-pulse attack is part of cyber- and information-warfare operations as conceived by our potential adversaries. Our cyber doctrine must be designed to deter and defeat the cyber doctrines of those who may attack us, but our current doctrine is blind to the threat.
The sun can also inflict a natural electromagnetic-pulse catastrophe that would make "American Blackout" look benign. Solar flares regularly collide with the Earth's magnetosphere and generate geomagnetic storms that can damage electric grids. In 1989, a geomagnetic storm called the Hydro-Quebec Storm blacked out eastern Canada for a day, causing billions of dollars in economic losses.
1859 saw a rare geomagnetic superstorm called the Carrington Event that, if it recurred today, would black out electric grids worldwide and put at risk the lives of billions. Indeed, if the 1921 Railroad Storm (a geostorm estimated to be only one-tenth as powerful as Carrington) recurred today, the National Academy of Sciences calculates that it could cause an American blackout lasting four to 10 years.
There is no excuse for the United States to be vulnerable to an electromagnetic pulse or the worst-case cyber-scenarios. As a preventive measure, President Obama should sign the executive order provided to the White House by the EMP Commission directing that the national grid shall be protected. Congress should do its part by passing the Shield Act, championed by Republican Rep. Trent Franks of Arizona and Democratic Rep. Yvette Clarke of New York, which authorizes protection of the national grid. This vital legislation has been stalled in the House Energy and Commerce Committee for years.
States should not wait for Washington, but should immediately launch their own grid-protection initiatives, as done already by Maine. States can "island" their grids, which will in no way impede their ability to receive or export electric power from or to other states, and thereby protect their people from catastrophe.
Industry should start manufacturing transformers, control systems and other critical grid technologies hardened against an electromagnetic pulse. Doing so would only add 1 percent to 3 percent to manufacturing cost. As old transformers are retired and other systems are replaced with new hardened systems, not only the United States, but the entire Free World would eventually become protected from an electromagnetic pulse catastrophe.
Peter Vincent Pry served on the staffs of the Congressional EMP Commission and the House Armed Services Committee, and in the CIA.