Former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld noted long ago that there is a geopolitical counterpart to Aristotle’s axiom that “nature abhors a vacuum.” As the author of the terrific new book “Rumsfeld’s Rules” quipped, “Weakness is provocative.”
A corollary to this rule might be “vulnerability invites catastrophe.” For just as bad actors throughout history have been induced to act aggressively when they perceive irresolution or incapacity on the part of their adversaries, the perception of vulnerabilities that might be exploited decisively can amount to an invitation to do so — with potentially catastrophic consequences.
Unfortunately, America has one such portentous vulnerability: its electric grid’s lack of resiliency in the face of electromagnetic pulse (EMP) events. Widespread EMP can be precipitated most efficiently by detonating a nuclear weapon many miles above the United States, unleashing gamma rays that interact with the atmosphere to expose every unshielded electrical and computer-based device within line of sight to immensely powerful pulses of energy.
According to a blue-ribbon commission impaneled by Congress in the past decade to evaluate this EMP threat, the effect of such an attack — perhaps delivered by a relatively short-range ballistic missile launched from a ship off a U.S. coast — would be catastrophic. That is because our grid has not been hardened to withstand such electromagnetic pulses.
As a result, the EMP Threat Commission found that our bulk-power system and particularly its key components — notably, roughly 1,000 large and smaller transformers that are its backbone — would be damaged or destroyed. This would cause power outages that would be widespread, protracted and result in the rapid and enduring collapse of all other critical infrastructure (food, water, medicine, telecommunications, transportation, finance, etc.)
The commission’s chairman, William Graham, put a fine point on the magnitude of the catastrophe. He estimated that within a year of such a takedown of our grid, nine out of 10 Americans would be dead.
At least four hostile nations — Russia, China, North Korea and Iran — are known to be aware of our acute vulnerability to EMP effects. Three of the four appear to have the means to exploit the U.S. vulnerability. Iranians reportedly are working hard to acquire the means.
In fact, as executive director of the EMP Threat Commission, Peter Pry reported in a briefing last week that the Cuban nuclear-capable surface-to-air missiles that Panamanian authorities recently discovered stashed in the hold of a North Korean freighter could have been used to mount an EMP attack from the Caribbean. If the North Koreans have this capacity, their Iranian strategic partners will, too, in due course. On that occasion, Henry Cooper, who formerly directed the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization, warned that in addition to a dangerously vulnerable grid, we have no warning radars or missile defenses looking southward to protect against such a strike.
To make matters worse, as Michael Del Rosso, former chairman of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ Critical Infrastructure Protection Committee, added — even if no hostile power responds catastrophically to the U.S. vulnerability to EMP, a similar level of devastation can be caused by natural phenomena. Specifically, intense solar flaring of the kind currently occurring could, according to an estimate by Lloyds of London, leave up to 40 million Americans without power for as long as two years.
That such a sun-induced occurrence could afflict our planet is not merely hypothetical. It is a matter of when, not if. In fact, the Earth’s orbit recently missed by one week intersecting with the devastating geomagnetic disturbances caused by a powerful coronal mass ejection.
So great is our vulnerability and so high are the stakes if they are not promptly mitigated, the EMP Coalition has been established to raise awareness and campaign for corrective action. The informal coalition’s bipartisan honorary co-chairmen are former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Director of Central Intelligence R. James Woolsey. Its partners include many of the most knowledgeable and effective specialists, organizations and activists in this field, including EMPact America, the Electric Infrastructure Security Council, High Frontier and the Center for Security Policy.
An immediate focus of the EMP Coalition’s efforts is to provide educational support to legislative efforts at the federal and state levels to protect America’s electric grid. The former include the Secure High-voltage Infrastructure for Electricity from Lethal Damage Act, HR 2417, sponsored by Reps. Trent Franks, Arizona Republican, and Yvette D. Clark, New York Democrat. A model for the latter is the recently enacted Maine state law, LD 131, sponsored by state Rep. Andrea M. Boland.
Another impetus for action, if any were needed, is the revelation that a top target for foreign espionage in this country is stealing our radiation-hardened electronics technology. While multiple factors may be contributing to such thefts (notably, others’ ambitions to operate in and exercise control of outer space — an alarming prospect in its own right), using these technologies can help potential adversaries be prepared for EMP. To do no less ourselves on a comprehensive and national basis is truly to invite catastrophe.
Frank J. Gaffney Jr. was an assistant secretary of defense under President Reagan. He is president of the Center for Security Policy (SecureFreedom.org), a columnist for The Washington Times and host of the nationally syndicated program “Secure Freedom Radio.”