America’s electric grid and other key infrastructure remain vulnerable to an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack from China, North Korea or other adversary, and the U.S. is at a pivotal moment if it wants to avoid a potential doomsday scenario, a panel of experts warned Tuesday.
At a major virtual forum hosted by the Universal Peace Federation, specialists warned of the growing threat of an EMP attack that could knock out communications, water and sewer services, transportation systems, retail and other central components of American society.
The dangers of EMP attacks have long been understood, but China‘s shocking test of a new hypersonic glide vehicle last summer has some analysts fearing it could give the nation’s Communist leaders the perfect avenue to deploy a high-altitude EMP, offering the chance to defeat the U.S. by sparking a long-lasting blackout, shutting down food and water delivery systems, and crushing military communications and contact with far-flung posts.
China already possesses so-called “super EMPs,” or weapons designed to create bursts of energy much stronger than past versions, according to an analysis by the Task Force on National and Homeland Security, a congressional advisory board.
Combining EMP attacks with other modern unconventional military tactics could be even more devastating.
“That poses a real threat of possibly being able to win a war with a single blow by means of an EMP attack. Moreover … they don’t envision employing an EMP by itself. It would be used in conjunction with cyberattacks and physical sabotage, and non-nuclear EMP,” Peter Vincent Pry, the task force’s executive director, said at Tuesday’s event, which was moderated by Washington Times Foundation President Michael Jenkins.
“This is regarded by Russia, China, North Korea and Iran as potentially the most decisive military revolution in history,” Mr. Pry said. “By attacking the technological Achilles heel of a nation like the United States, you could bring us to our knees and not even have to do battle with the Marines or the Navy or the Air Force, and win a war in 24 hours with a single blow — a combined EMP cyberattack.”
Indeed, American scholars and lawmakers have warned for decades that U.S. infrastructure — especially the electric grid system — is highly vulnerable to EMPs. Huge swaths of infrastructure aren’t adequately protected against such an attack, specialists warned, despite widespread agreement on the importance of the problem and the existence of technology to solve it.
President Trump in 2019 signed an executive order directing a new level of government-wide coordination on combating a potential EMP attack. Recent federal spending bills also have included measures to ramp up EMP defenses.
But many specific steps have yet to be implemented, such as bringing all pieces of the electric grid up to the military’s “hardening” standard so they are able to withstand a major electromagnetic pulse.
“We do know how to protect against it. It’s not a technological problem. It’s a political problem,” Mr. Pry said, citing federal bureaucracy and other factors that make the issue especially complex and difficult.
Indeed, other specialists said that the Biden administration should keep the nation’s EMP vulnerability firmly in mind as it doles out billions of dollars in infrastructure money.
“There are active protection measures that will ground the pulse as it strikes the electric system of a vehicle, for example. The good news is those technologies are out there, they exist,” said David Winks, managing director at AcquSight, a leading cyber, physical and electromagnetic resilience firm. “I think it would be a good use of some of this infrastructure money to start investing in this.”
One of the largest hurdles is the vast number of state agencies and utility companies involved with the nation’s electric grid, making it difficult to install a single set of hardening standards across the entire country.
‘The clock is ticking’
Meanwhile, China has invested heavily in its offensive EMP programs, and those investments are bearing fruit. Last August, for example, the South China Morning Post and other regional media outlets reported that China very likely conducted its first test of an EMP weapon, successfully using the pulse to knock drones out of the sky. The Post cited papers published by Chinese technology journals that reported the test but offered little detail.
The Pentagon warns that electronic warfare is an increasingly important piece of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) arsenal and its preparations for a potential clash with the U.S.
China‘s electronic warfare strategy “emphasizes suppressing, degrading, disrupting, or deceiving enemy electronic equipment throughout the continuum of a conflict while protecting its ability to use the cyber and electromagnetic spectrum,” reads a recent Pentagon report on Chinese military capabilities. “The PLA is likely to use electronic warfare early in a conflict as a signaling mechanism to warn and deter adversary offensive action. Potential EW targets include adversary systems operating in radio, radar, microwave, infrared and optical frequency ranges, as well as adversary computer and information systems.”
Even nations without China‘s cutting-edge military capabilities still could be able to inflict serious damage using EMP technology.
“There is no need for precision. North Korea doesn’t need to have a very good ballistic missile in order to precisely deploy and detonate the weapon,” said Plamen Doynov, a professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and chief technology officer at the company EMP Shield.
Mr. Doynov also warned that unlike a nuclear strike, traditional bombing campaign or ground invasion, an EMP attack doesn’t directly cause any casualties, potentially allowing an enemy to more easily justify the move and make retaliation a more difficult political decision for the state that is targeted.
“It’s bloodless, at least initially,” he said.
But over time, hundreds of millions of lives could be lost. Mr. Pry has estimated that a yearlong blackout caused by an EMP could ultimately kill 90% of Americans.
Such a catastrophic situation at home, of course, would allow American adversaries to essentially do as they pleased around the globe.
“Imagine the president in the situation where the dispute is over Taiwan, or the dispute is with Russia over the Baltic states,” Mr. Pry said at Tuesday’s event. “And they do an EMP [attack] on the United States. What’s the president going to do? Try to go into World War III, which he will surely lose? … Or is he going to use the residual capabilities that we have, especially the military capabilities, to try to recover those critical civilian infrastructures because the clock is ticking toward the deaths of millions of Americans?”