April: InfrastructurePreparing for the electromagnetic pulse (EMP) threat

Published 2 April 2008

One unexpected lesson of the many nuclear tests conducted by the superpowers in the late 1950s and early 1960s was that high-altitude nuclear blasts create far-reaching atmospheric effects that could instantly shut down power grids; as modern life becomes ever-more dependent on electronic gadgets, and as the proliferation of nuclear weapons and missiles continue, fear grows that an adversary will seek to cripple the United States by creating an atmospheric EMP effect

Americans’ dependence on gadgetry of all kinds extends from mechanical toothbrushes and wireless car keys to light-activated paper towel dispensers in restaurants’ bathrooms to life-saving medical equipment and complex systems for accessing and securing bank records. Governing magazine’s Mark Stencel writes that this dependence also explains why some security experts fear a potentially continent-crippling electromagnetic pulse attack on the United States. Doomsday scenarios involving electromagnetic pulse weapons are the result of nuclear tests in the early 1960s. Those tests showed that high-altitude nuclear blasts create far-reaching atmospheric effects that could instantly shut down power grids. They also could, at least in theory, fry almost anything that plugs into a wall, attaches to a phone line, or depends on sensitive circuitry. “Electrical systems might be knocked offline for weeks, if not months, disrupting or disabling transportation, communication, health and financial systems, as well as many other basic public services,” Stencel writes. The threat was serious enough that U.S. and Soviet forces began hardening critical military components against such effects — while incorporating the concept into strategies for countering each other’s technological advantages in a potential nuclear conflict.
With increased concerns about the worldwide proliferation of nuclear know-how and missile technology since the end of the cold war, some defense experts have put the possibility of an attack using an electromagnetic pulse weapon high on their lists of homeland security threats. Conventional nuclear weapons, bioterrorism, and cyberwarfare remain on those lists, too, but the idea of an adversary seriously disrupting the nation’s power supply keeps preying on the minds of those who make policy. Speculating about Iran’s intentions at a 2005 Senate hearing, former House speaker Newt Gingrich warned of the “catastrophic impact” of the electromagnetic pulse from “a single Iranian nuclear missile,” which he said “could quickly turn a third or more of the United States back to a 19th century level of development.” Gingrich’s testimony testimony echoed the conclusions released the previous year by a commission created by Congress to study that exact threat. The panel’s findings were alarming: An electromagnetic pulse from certain kinds of nuclear blasts could create “unprecedented cascading failures of our major infrastructure,” and the arduous recovery from such an attack “would seriously degrade the safety and overall viability of our nation.”
Predictions like those offered by Gingrich made made it into the plot lines of TV shows such as “24,” “Jericho,” and “Dark Angel,” but the threat is considered real by government experts and it evokes governmental response at both the federal and state levels. Stencel writes that in Maryland, officials are considering forming a state-level task force to look at how to protect critical infrastructure from electromagnetic pulses, and a state technology grant is funding a pilot project designed to help local officials, utilities, hospitals, and others think through their needs for preparing for such an attack.
How real is the threat of an adversary using an electromagnetic pulse to cripple the United States? It is not easy to answer this question. A Congressional Research Service (CRS) report reiterates much of the congressional commission’s findings, but CRS also notes that “some analysts discount the likelihood of a large-scale EMP attack” and questions “the extent of possible damage, stating that the critical infrastructure would survive.” Critics of the panel have accused the commissioners of exaggerating the dangers to justify increased spending on ballistic missile defenses, which members of the panel also have strongly advocated. Stencel points out that the specific threat from an electromagnetic pulse is ultimately less significant than the fear on which it is based: The potential loss of the electronic infrastructure of modern life. “Appreciating that vulnerability doesn’t require a rogue nation to hurl a nuclear missile high into our skies. The cascading human and system failures that left millions of Floridians in the dark in February and the even more widespread Northeastern blackout in 2003 underscore the current fragility of the U.S. power grid,” he writes.
Many of the commission’s recommendations for heading off an electromagnetic doomsday — especially those that involve disaster planning and fortifying electrical and telecommunications systems — may be prudent investments. “They would prepare the United States for all manner of man-made calamity, as well as natural disasters, including hurricanes, earthquakes and massive solar storms. Most important, they address the real source of our fear, which is the target, not the weapon,” Stencel concludes.