In 2008, the statutory Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack delivered over 100 recommendations to Congress to protect the national electric grid and other life-sustaining critical infrastructures — including communications, transportation, energy, business and finance, food and water. We were hopeful the job would get done.
Following an EMP attack, 326 million Americans could not long survive bereft of the electronic civilization that sustains their lives. EMP would be a civilization killer.
The EMP commission reports are “good news,” because they prove there is no excuse for the nation to be vulnerable. Electric grids and other life-sustaining critical infrastructures can be protected — affordably. For example, the 2008 report estimates that the electric grid’s bulk-power system can be hardened to survive for a few billion dollars.
So, in 2008, when the EMP Commission delivered what we thought then was our final report to Congress, we were hopeful America soon would be protected.
However, by 2015 — 20 years after the first open congressional EMP hearing in 1995 — the U.S. Government Accountability Office testified to Congress that not a single major recommendation of the EMP Commission had yet been implemented. Not one.
Consequently, Congress re-established the EMP Commission in 2015-2017 to re-examine the threat and to make further recommendations.
The commission concludes in its new reports that the threat to electric grids and other life-sustaining critical infrastructures is just as great, or greater, than in 2008. U.S. military power, the national economy and civil society are increasingly dependent upon electricity and electronics that are vulnerable to EMP.
And, now, North Korea has nuclear missiles and satellites that could execute an EMP attack on the United States.
Moreover, on July 23, 2012, a massive and energetic solar coronal mass ejection crossed the orbit of the Earth, narrowly missing our planet by a few days. NASA now estimates the likelihood of a solar superstorm, of worldwide magnitude like the 1859 Carrington Event, is 12 percent per decade.
Perhaps the most alarming conclusion of the new EMP Commission reports is that the U.S. government has been incapable of protecting our electronic civilization from EMP extinction.
The EMP commissioners mostly are from a generation accustomed to thinking of the U.S. government as having the wisdom, vision and competence to successfully accomplish great enterprises in the national interest and protect our nation from existential threats. For example:
- During World War II, the U.S. government transformed its almost nonexistent U.S. Army into liberators of Western Europe and Asia and the “Arsenal of Democracy” that defeated Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.
- The Manhattan Project (1942-1945) invented the atomic bomb and built the scientific-industrial infrastructure that sustained nuclear deterrence, preserved peace and won the Cold War.
- In 1954, with the launch of the USS Nautilus, the so-called U.S. Nuclear Navy soon included nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, cruisers, attack and ballistic missile submarines.
- The 1956 Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways launched construction of the world’s largest highway system, 50,000 road miles costing $120 billion, for commercial and defense purposes.
- In 1958, President Eisenhower’s National Aeronautics and Space Act created NASA, responding to the USSR’s launch of a satellite causing the “Sputnik crisis.” NASA sent men to the moon in 1969 and won the space race.
Whatever happened to the U.S. government capable of such feats?
Bureaucratic politics, negligence and gross incompetence accounts for why the U.S. government has failed to protect Americans from the existential threat that is EMP. For example:
- The U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is a rotating door for lawyers and lobbyists serving electric utilities and has been “captured” by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), which is essentially a lobby for the electric power industry.
- The Department of Defense (DOD) over-classifies data on the EMP threat and hardening techniques needed by electric utilities and private sectors to protect the critical infrastructures, indifferent to the fact that DOD cannot defend the nation without electricity from the national grids.
- The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), bereft of data on the real EMP threat from DOD, relies for EMP expertise on novices working for the Department of Energy.
- The Department of Energy (DOE) relies for EMP expertise on novices, bureaucrats and erroneous “junk science” studies by recent administrations and electric power industries.
- Despite President Trump’s direction to the U.S. government in his National Security Strategy that the nation’s electric grid and other life-sustaining critical infrastructures be EMP-protected, and despite Congress in the Critical Infrastructure Protection Act ordering protection of the nation from EMP as a legal obligation, bureaucrats in DHS and DOE have, to date, deliberately ignored or dismissed the guidance of the president, the Congress and the EMP Commission.
The bureaucratic Gordian knot preventing national EMP preparedness appears to be a greater challenge than winning World War II, the invention of the atomic bomb, the development of the nuclear navy, building the national highway system or sending men to the moon.
What is needed, as recommended by the commission, is White House leadership, an executive agent appointed by the president — or, perhaps President Trump himself taking charge of national EMP preparedness — to plough through a resistant federal bureaucracy, the way that President Roosevelt did with the Manhattan Project or President Eisenhower with the national highway system. Protecting our electronic civilization is easy to do: A FERC regulation requiring utilities to protect the electric grid from 100 kilovolts/meter E1 EMP and 85 volts/kilometer E3 EMP would seriously address, and eventually solve, the problem.
Dr. William R. Graham served as President Ronald Reagan’s White House science adviser, led NASA and the Congressional EMP Commission, was on the defense science team that discovered the EMP phenomenon after the 1962 STARFISH PRIME nuclear test, and has played a leading role in protecting U.S. military systems from EMP since 1963.
Dr. Peter Vincent Pry was chief of staff of the Congressional EMP Commission. He served on the staff of the House Armed Service Committee and at the CIA. He is the author of a new book, “EMP Manhattan Project: Organizing For Survival Against An Electromagnetic Pulse Catastrophe.”