Bureaucracies know how to deal with really challenging problems that affect the survival of our country: Kill the messenger.
The Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack terminated on September 30, ironically, the same month North Korea tested an H-bomb it described as “a multifunctional thermonuclear nuke with great destructive power which can be detonated even at high altitudes for superpowerful EMP attack.”
For 17 years, the EMP Commission warned about the existential EMP threat.
Rogue states or terrorists can blackout national electric grids and other life-sustaining critical infrastructures, topple electronic civilization, and kill millions from sea to shining sea, with a single high-altitude nuclear detonation, generating an EMP field covering North America. Natural EMP from a solar superstorm could blackout the whole world. EMP is considered a cyber weapon, not a nuclear weapon, in the military doctrines of Russia, China, North Korea and Iran.
On October 12, before a House Homeland Security Subcommittee chaired by Rep. Scott Perry, the EMP Commission staff delivered a final testimony, lamenting Washington bureaucrats are still oblivious to EMP.
The Department of Defense (DOD), Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Department of Energy (DOE), still largely staffed by Obama-holdovers, did not ask Congress to continue the EMP Commission.
The Secretaries of DOD and DOE ignored repeated requests to meet with the EMP Commission. DOE thinks the EMP threat is unproven and plans to partner with the electric power industry on studying EMP until 2020 and beyond.
DOD is letting DOE waste millions of dollars on unnecessary studies while DOD sits on a mountain of classified studies proving the EMP threat is real — which is why DOD has spent billions EMP hardening military systems.
Experts who have worked on protecting military systems from EMP for decades know how to harden our critical national infrastructure, but electric power organizations such as the Electric Power Research Institute and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation are not asking them for help.
A senior DHS official, speaking anonymously, recently told Fox News that EMP is a “theoretical” threat and lower priority than “real” threats, like cyber-attacks and sabotage.
Yet the empirical basis for the EMP threat to electric grids and civilization is far deeper and broader than for cyber-attacks or sabotage.
We know for certain EMP will damage electronics and cause protracted blackout of unprotected electric grids and other critical infrastructures from:
• The 1962 U.S. STARFISH PRIME high-altitude nuclear test that generated an EMP field over the Hawaiian Islands, over 1,300 kilometers away, causing widespread damage to electronic systems.
• Six Russian high altitude nuclear tests 1961-1962 over Kazakhstan that with a single weapon destroyed electric grids over an area larger than Western Europe.
• 30 years (1962-1992) of U.S. underground nuclear testing. (Contrary to another government “expert” cited by Fox News, underground nuclear tests can tell a lot about the EMP threat from the weapon yield, gamma ray output, and other effects. Indeed, nuclear weapons specialized for EMP, what Russia and China call “Super-EMP” weapons, can be made without testing.)
• Over 50 years of testing using EMP simulators, including tests by the EMP Commission (2001-2008), proving modern semiconductor electronics are far more vulnerable to EMP than 1950-60s era electronics.
Moreover, hard data proving the threat from nuclear EMP is available from natural EMP generated by geomagnetic storms, accidental damage caused by electromagnetic transients, and non-nuclear EMP weapons. All these produce field strengths much less powerful than nuclear EMP.
Electromagnetic attack is well known to North Korea. It used a non-nuclear EMP weapon to attack airliners and impose an “electromagnetic blockade” on air traffic to Seoul, South Korea’s capital, disrupting communications and operation of automobiles in several South Korean cities in December 2010; March 2011; and April-May 2012.
Real world failures of electric grids from various causes indicate nuclear EMP attack would have catastrophic consequences. Big blackouts have been caused by small failures cascading into system-wide failures:
• The Great Northeast Blackout of 2003 — that put 50 million people in the dark for a day, contributed to at least 11 deaths and cost an estimated $6 billion — happened when a power line contacted a tree branch, damaging less than 0.0000001 (0.00001 percent) of the system.
• The New York City Blackout of 1977, that resulted in the arrest of 4,500 looters and injury of 550 police officers, was caused by a lightning strike on a substation that tripped two circuit breakers.
• The Great Northeast Blackout of 1965, that effected 30 million people, happened because a protective relay on a transmission line was improperly set.
• India’s nationwide blackout of July 30-31, 2012 — the largest blackout in history, effecting 670 million people, 9 percent of the world population — was caused by overload of a single high-voltage power line.
In contrast to the above blackouts caused by small-scale failures, nuclear EMP attack would inflict massive widespread damage to electric grids.
A protracted blackout endangering millions will be the inevitable result of the EMP attack described by the North Koreans.
But the EMP Commission won’t be around anymore to help prevent electronic Armageddon.
• Peter Vincent Pry is chief of staff of the congressional EMP Commission and served in the House Armed Services Committee and the CIA. William Graham is chairman of the EMP Commission and a former science adviser to President Reagan.