- - Sunday, April 4, 2021

As a person growing up in Philadelphia, I was repeatedly bombarded with words of wisdom from my parents, teachers and others who would often cite Benjamin Franklin and his famous quote: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

Franklin was giving advice regarding fire-prevention, but his advice has even more relevance today because there is a very serious threat to our nation’s security that has gotten far too little attention given the overwhelming and truly catastrophic consequences that would result.

Amazingly, this threat comes from the sun. Yes, that bright shining object in the sky that lights our days, makes the flowers grow, sustains our agriculture and whose rays can be made to generate electricity also has the capacity to obliterate our nation. It is a scientific fact that the sun has what non-scientists call solar superstorms from time to time, and it is also a scientific fact that these storms can launch huge blasts of devastating radiation and geomagnetic effects toward our planet Earth.

The more technical description for such an event is a “solar coronal mass ejection” (CME) or an electro-magnetic pulse (EMP). 

There have been numerous solar superstorms over past centuries, but they left the Earth relatively unharmed either because the Earth was not in the path of the storm or because America and the world had not yet entered the electronic age of widespread electricity distribution systems and the profusion of electrical equipment and electronically controlled systems on which our modern society has become so very dependent.

The fact is that America’s electric power grid and much of its critical infrastructure today is totally vulnerable to an electro-magnetic pulse (EMP) and, should such an event occur, the consequences would be horrific. This sudden bombardment of X-rays and other harmful rays from the sun would cause massive and enduring damage to our nation’s electric distribution networks and other life-sustaining critical infrastructures, putting at risk the lives of millions of Americans and billions of people across our world.

Most American’s have never heard of EMP and even fewer people know that America and the world had a narrow escape just a few years ago, when there was a large solar coronal mass ejection in 2012 that was of a scale that would have devastated our nation. Within seconds of the arrival of the electro-magnetic pulse, 21st century America and its people would have been thrown backwards at least 150 years with our critical infrastructure damaged massively and with the near certainty of mass starvation and societal disintegration.

Imagine that just about everything you depend upon for modern life would suddenly be non-functional. Cars, buses, trains and trucks will roll to a stop due to the computer controls that are the heart of every modern automobile being burned-up. Traffic lights won’t work. Cellphones and your smart TV won’t work. Pretty much everything that runs on electricity will not work. There would be a protracted blackout of the national electric grid … no electric power for you or anyone else for months.

If America is hit with a solar superstorm, chaos and starvation are pretty much guaranteed with credible experts predicting up to 90% of Americans dying within 12 months — if the electric grid remains unprotected. 

Luckily, America and the world dodged a bullet in 2012. The EMP pulse did not launch in the direction of planet Earth and our world was spared from massive devastation.

Unfortunately, we are not immune from future threats of this type from Mother Nature. Another CME event could happen at any time with the Earth in its line of fire. It could happen tomorrow, and the United States is woefully unprepared for such an event.

Sadly, we are also vulnerable to man-made EMP threats as well.

A man-made electro-magnetic pulse can be generated by a single nuclear weapon detonated at high-altitude over the U.S. Russia, China, North Korea and maybe even Iran, have developed nuclear EMP weapons and they have the ability now to deliver a surprise attack on the United States. Ben Franklin saw the threat of fires that could burn his city to the ground, and he worked to get things done to lessen that threat.

We, his descendants, are now facing a far more serious threat from an electronic fire. The sun may blast us with a solar superstorm, or a hostile foreign nation may launch anonymously a man-made electromagnetic pulse storm that would devastate the United States in ways that are hard to imagine.

The question is, will our government hide from this genuine horrific threat or heed Ben Franklin and develop an ounce of prevention?  

The good news is that there are relatively simple and inexpensive solutions available that can reduce and even eliminate this existential threat to our nation. Our power grid can be protected inexpensively by shielding the transformers and the control systems and provide a resilience that will allow a quick recovery from such an event. Our cars and trucks and home appliances can all be protected from the EMP threat at a moderate cost of a few hundred dollars.

The other good news is that our government, after years of inattention, has finally begun to awaken to the seriousness of this threat and things have begun to move in the right direction. But much more needs to be done and it needs to be done on an emergency basis.

Our nation’s leaders need to make protecting our nation’s critical infrastructure from the threat of EMP priority number one in the Biden administration’s new $3 trillion infrastructure plan. 

• Christopher M. Lehman Sr. served as a defense staffer in the U.S. Senate and in the Reagan administration at the State Department and later as special assistant for national security affairs to President Reagan. He is the chairman of the board of the Landing Craft Support Museum foundation.

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