President Trump has signed an executive order for protection of America’s electric grid and other infrastructure against electromagnetic pulse (EMP). Few mainstream media outlets bothered to cover this story. The Washington Post, with its banner slogan “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” was the exception.
The Post decided to cover this important story in its online blog, the Monkey Cage. Four nontechnical graduate students from the University of Pennsylvania were given the assignment to write about EMP. They naively concluded that the doctrine of mutually assured destruction would prevent use of all nuclear weapons, including EMP-enhanced weapons. The headline asked the question “Trump issued an executive order to prepare for an EMP attack; What is it and should you worry?” Two flippant subheads answered that question: “Nah. But the U.S. should get ready for a very similar threat—from the sun;” and “No, you don’t need to worry about a nuclear EMP. Here’s why.”
A nuclear EMP attack from Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, or other adversary is an existential threat to the United States and all other technologically advanced societies. Cyber warfare, coupled with nuclear EMP targeting, is part of the military doctrines of Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran. A first-strike EMP attack would disrupt command, control, and communications for America’s military and almost all of the supporting critical infrastructures. While our strategic nuclear forces are protected against EMP, most other military and civilian equipment remains vulnerable. All domestic military bases ultimately depend on the commercial electric grid for their water and power, and the grid is almost completely unprotected against EMP. Mutually assured destruction is not the policy of our adversaries. They believe that an EMP can so damage a nation’s command, control and communications that a retaliatory strike is difficult to achieve.
When asked to envision nuclear warfare, what captures the public’s mind is the World War II attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. If asked to imagine a modern-day attack with nuclear weapons, Americans tend to think of giant mushroom clouds over New York, Washington, or Los Angeles. But an EMP attack, although it produces no blast, radiation, thermal or local fallout on the ground, could kill many more people than a ground-level nuclear attack, because without electricity, most people would starve or die of disease.
To conduct an EMP attack, a nuclear device is exploded high in the atmosphere. High intensity ultra-fast (E1) pulses damage the electronics, switches, and control systems on which virtually all critical infrastructures depend. Slower pulses couple with long line infrastructures – the electric grid, gas, crude oil and refined product pipelines, Internet, and telecommunication systems. Long line systems suffer from the so-called E3 pulses. Such an attack could burn out critical electric grid energy supplies and grid components, producing a blackout lasting months or years.
The Post’s piece included a link to a description of the Starfish Prime test, a high altitude nuclear explosion that revealed surprising results in 1962. Among other effects, the test disabled communications and street lights in Hawaii some 900 miles away, where EMP effects were attenuated due to distance. Vacuum tube devices have since been replaced by far more fragile semiconductor components.
Starfish Prime was a well-publicized event. Honolulu hotels advertised cocktails on their roofs to watch the aurora borealis that would be produced by “Thor’s Rainbow Bomb.” Following the test’s unexpected and disturbing results, most information about EMP became classified.
The astute Soviets had sent two ships with scientists to collect data on the Starfish Prime event. They then performed their own EMP tests over Kazakhstan, using better instruments. The Soviets learned that well-timed EMP weapons had the capability to disable a nation’s command and control, hence its ability to retaliate. EMP placed the doctrine of mutually assured destruction in significant doubt.
We need to take quick, decisive and sustained actions to protect the critical infrastructures, such as electricity, communications, water, food, transportation, and supply chains on which 327 million Americans depend for their survive. We need to decide how our infrastructures will be protected, and exactly how to pay for those protective measures.
If the grid does go down, we need to have community-based organizations in place ready to offer food, provide potable water, and deal with disposal of sewage. Preparedness should be everyone’s business.
When The Washington Post claims that nuclear EMP is nothing to worry about, and if the federal policymakers and bureaucrats believe the Post, we may well be in trouble. When faced with an unfamiliar and complex threat, a bureaucracy will do what a bureaucracy does best: study, postpone, and delay. Whether a blackout is caused by nuclear EMP or severe solar storm, if the grid goes down, then democracy may well die in darkness, especially if Americans depend on The Washington Post and other mainstream media for information on the threat of EMP.
Melissa Hancock is Media Relations Manager for the Foundation for Resilient Societies, and a trustee of the Media Research Center.