Some estimates suggest that a coordinated electromagnetic pulse, or EMP, attack on the U.S. using multiple nuclear weapons could eventually kill up to 90 percent of the population. So why is the American public still so ignorant about the threat? And what can we do to protect ourselves?
As a graduate student studying military history and technology back in the early 1990s, I first became aware of the threat poised by EMP and coronal mass ejection, or CME. Frankly, at the time it sounded like science fiction — falling into the same category with so-called death rays, laser cannons, and such.
Growing up during the Cold War, I assumed that if Armageddon ever came, it would be the usual scenario of an escalation growing out of control into a full-scale nuclear exchange of thousands of warheads. Beyond that, whether it would be an exchange between us and the Soviets, or China, the concept of M.A.D., or mutual assured destruction, would hopefully prevent that from happening, unless, as President Kennedy warned, a nuclear war was started by miscalculation, madness, or accident.
As those of you reading this know, the world has changed profoundly since the early 1990s. New and highly unstable players have entered, or are attempting to enter, the playing field of nuclear weaponry. It is possible that a state with an unstable leader, or driven by an apocalyptic fantasy in fulfillment of some prophecy, might someday unleash a nuclear attack.
In that, there is something to note: Since the beginning of recorded history never has there been a weapon, or weapons system, that sooner or later was not eventually used.
Rogue threats replace cold war standoff
The top concerns of the moment are North Korea, Iran, and even a terrorist organization like ISIS. Gone are the days of a feared death-dealing blow requiring hundreds of warheads. All ISIS would need would be one to three warheads and the means to launch them above the United States to trigger an EMP, something that could be achieved by a low-technology Scud-type missile with a container ship as a launching platform.
I first became aware of the extent of the threat with the release of the declassified sections of the congressional reports on the threat of EMP, in 2004, again in 2008 and a recent report that came out late last year, before funding for the committee was cut.
Why did I write three books on the the threat of EMP? A friend with whom I have worked in the past, Newt Gingrich, asked me to consider it. After meeting the chairman of the first two committees, Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (D-Md.), along with advisors to the committee such as Dr. Peter Pry and former head of the CIA Ambassador James Woolsey, the message from all of them was the same: The problem was gaining public support for proactive actions to protect our nation’s electrical, electronic and communications grid.
Public is ignorant of EMP threat
What little the public knew about EMP usually came from highly inaccurate portrayals of it in movies and television. I was asked to try to write an accurate novel about the subject to raise public awareness and coming from that public support for political action at the national and state levels.
Some of you might be aware of how an EMP actually works and the potential results. It starts with triggering even a relatively low-yield nuclear (not thermonuclear) warhead approximately 250 miles above the central United States. A worse-case scenario for us would be such weapons detonated over the eastern, central and western continental United States.
The gamma-ray burst released by the explosion as it strikes the thin upper atmosphere triggers what is known as the “Compton Effect,” meaning an electrostatic discharge of ever-increasing intensity as it cascades down to Earth’s surface at the speed of light.
Upon impact something we would not actually feel — or even see unless looking directly at the point of detonation — will strike the hundreds of millions of wires that link our country together, from electrical to telecommunications including cell phone towers, and take our country entirely off the grid.
According to congressional studies, financial damage from the initial impact alone would soar into the trillions.
Long-term effects of EMP destruction
What is far more of concern, though, is the impact on human existence. Every major city would become uninhabitable within a few days. Why? Start with water supply, which in almost every community relies on electrical pumping for delivery and waste removal. Once the bottled water is gone urban centers become centers of crisis. The average major community has directly on hand somewhere between 20 to 30 days of food supply. That means everything from what is in the home freezer to supply trucks backing into supermarkets. The food requiring proper temperature control will become uneatable within a week, along with not having the means to freeze or cook it.
The list goes on. Modern pharmacies rarely keep more than several days’ worth of medication on hand, especially if it is a controlled substance. When a prescription is filled at the counter, reference to that goes into a database and within a few days FedEx pulls up with a resupply. Some who absolutely requires accurate daily medications, such as pancreatic enzyme disorder or anti-rejection medication for transplants, will die within days. Of frightful consideration are the millions dependent on pain medication due to cancer. A worse nightmare will unfold for the couple of million or more who are in elder care, hospice care, and facilities for Alzheimer’s.
Beyond that in this nightmare scenario is the near-complete breakdown of our transportation grid, cars heavily dependent on electronics will stop working, everyone will be cut off from access to electronic cash via credit cards, and the darker side of humanity will emerge with the realization that police and even military enforcement of law and order will have collapsed.
Thus the frightening statistic that a year after such an attack, upwards of 90 percent of all Americans would be dead.
Several years back I attended a roundtable discussion along with Woolsey and Pry (whom those involved in this issue see as the technical experts on the subject). A study was presented that estimated a moderate- to high-yield EMP strike could shut down the 500 primary generating systems from the central to eastern United States.
The American power grid is vulnerable
One of the great problem areas is the vast web of high-tension lines, which moves our power from generators to our communities and homes. Those presenting the report estimated that 80 percent of our entire grid would still be dark and offline five years later. No one in that room questioned the thesis presented, the moment of stunned silence finally broken by someone sighing, “Well, with 90 percent of us dead, I guess that 80 percent would be sufficient for the survivors.”
A Department of Transportation report issued several years back pointed out that the average component in our entire electrical grid system is 30 years old and in many aspects is 30 years behind the technology curve. That only 15 percent of our high-end transformers and other key components are still manufactured within the United States. And for those high-end components, the wait time from ordering to delivery averages out to about two years.
There is hardly any stockpiling of key components for use in the event of an emergency. Hurricane Sandy, which struck New York City in 2012, should be a lesson, but it was not taken. Ill-prepared, a fair part of the grid ranging from central Manhattan down across Brooklyn and Staten Island was essentially wiped out. As catastrophic as that might seem, ultimately it was still only a regional event. Emergency repair crews from across the eastern United States raced in to help. Major components damaged or destroyed, the parts could be found somewhere else within our country, perhaps as far away as California and flown in.
Every natural disaster we have ever faced has always been regional, not continent-wide, and that is perhaps the fatal flaw in that disaster response system on which our lives depend.
CME, an EMP on a global scale
There is one other scenario to be concerned about: coronal mass ejection. A huge solar storm that would have essentially the same effect as an EMP strike, but globally rather than just regionally.
A good point of reference for this is to simply look up the “Carrington Event,” named after a solar astronomer who in 1859 observed an eruption on the surface of the sun. Two days later the “Victorian Internet,” meaning the telegraphy system across a fair part of England and the United States, shut down, the bare copper wires of the time actually bursting into flames and melting from the electrical overload. A recent report by NASA projects that a storm of such intensity has about a 10 percent probability of occurring during any given decade and 11-year solar cycle.
What has been done, and what still needs to be done?
Almost nothing has been done to upgrade key components in our electrical distribution grid. The Department of Defense has begun to react with the creation of closed-loop communications and power supply systems on bases stateside, but for the rest of the nation? At least two bills were presented to Congress since 1910, with such titles as “Protect Our Grid Act.” Bipartisan support in the House, blocked in committee with the Senate.
There are several areas in which preparedness now is essential, because once an EMP or CME hits it will be too late.
- Funding for improvement of our ABM systems, which currently only cover parts of the West Coast. The Gulf Coast and East Coast are wide open for an attack scenario such as a container ship with a launchable Scud, tipped with a nuclear weapon.
- Stockpiling of key electrical components, either through the federal government or providing grants to major power-distribution companies.
- Hardening of the distribution system, meaning improved circuit-breakers, replacement of vulnerable electronic components, training of personnel, etc.
- “Life Lines of Recovery.” To fully upgrade our grid to withstand a major EMP or CME event will take at least a decade, more likely decades. But starting now, at least ensure survival of major high-tension connections from generating plants to distribution points, which if they survive can become rally points for rebuilding our society.
And finally, controversial to be certain: A robust, fearless foreign policy that is proactive with the clear message that if we have firm data that a nation or a rogue group is preparing a strike, we must preemptively strike first.
EMP is an asymmetrical first-strike weapon. One second after detonation, the war will essentially be over in defeat, no matter what we might do in reply — if we are not prepared.