Air Force Researchers Call for National Electromagnetic Attack
—JOHN A. TIRPAK
Employees at the ?US Embassy in Havana, Cuba, shown here on March 22,
2016, and the US embassy in China were diagnosed with traumatic brain
injuries after being exposed to focused electromagnetic waves over
several months. State Department photo.
During the Cold War, the public was aware of the threat of nuclear
attack and took it seriously, participants in the Electromagnetic Task
Force’s 2019 study said. They concluded the US should mount a similar
national campaign encouraging individuals, the military, and industry
to adopt electromagnetic protection and resilience plans, just as
citizens built bomb shelters during the Cold War.
An electromagnetic pulse attack is essentially a surge of energy,
caused by a nuclear detonation or a solar storm, that could overload electronics and cause them to fail. While national leaders and
industry are more aware of the potential impacts, the Air University
study said, an effort akin to the “Smokey Bear” wildfire-prevention
initiative could better alert the public.
The idea that the US could suffer from such an attack isn’t new, and
experts differ on its potential consequences. In March, President
Donald Trump signed an executive order calling for a
whole-of-government approach to understanding and protecting against
In response to a Joint Chiefs of Staff inquiry into where the
Pentagon’s blind spots to such attacks lie and how to counter
potential incidents, the AU report’s authors said new complications
are popping up at a “shocking pace.” China is one particular country
to watch in EMS systems development, study participants said.
The biggest problem, according to the task force: there’s no national
or military plan to recover from and retaliate against an
electromagnetic pulse attack. The study recommended that the
Department of Homeland Security and US Northern Command should create
that plan together and regularly practice it.
Study participants looked to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and
other natural disasters and said social norms would break down in “as
little as 72 hours” following an electromagnetic attack. National
planners need to study “the psychology of human desperation,
starvation, and living without the rule of law” in building response
and recovery blueprints, and be prepared to provide resources in the
event of a long-term blackout, the report continued.
But those researchers said the potential impact of an EMP attack may
“There’s little cause for concern about an EMP attack in isolation,
because a nuclear EMP attack would be just that: a nuclear attack,”
the four said in a Post op-ed. “Such brazen aggression would prompt an overwhelming—and most likely nuclear—American response. Such
deterrence makes it unlikely a nuclear EMP attack would happen in the
High-powered microwave weapons and space weather events pose a more
likely threat than EMPs, the four writers argued.
“Working to better understand the hazards to US infrastructure may be
a good investment to evaluate if greater protection against EMPs is
worth pursuing,” the op-ed writers said.
The Air Force pointed to the microwave problem as well. The AU report
recalled that employees at the US embassies in China and Cuba were
“diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries typically associated with
some sort of shock or blow to the head,” following exposure to focused electromagnetic waves over several months within the past few years.
“The internal temperature of the victim’s brains had been raised by an
external electromagnetic source, triggering a response similar to
concussive industries,” the report stated.
HPM weapons development—which the Air Force is also pursuing—signals a
push into the gray area of nontraditional warfare where bad actors can invisibly target victims, according to the report. The success of the
embassy attacks “will likely inspire other able actors to use similar
means to influence targets,” the AU report noted.
The Air Force report argued that until recently, the Defense
Department and its industrial suppliers grossly misunderstood
electromagnetic spectrum threats and who should be in charge of
defending against them. Leaders should have a common understanding of
what these attacks can do and work to adapt future technologies to
those possibilities, the report said.
The development of 5G wireless networks, for example, offers an
opportunity to make that new national infrastructure resilient from
the start, the Air Force report said. 5G is more susceptible to power disruptions than 4G networks, the report’s authors argued, adding that
they see 5G as less resilient than previous versions. That view is not
shared across the Defense Department, which said in May that a 5G
network “would be more resilient and less susceptible to attacks,”
without specifying what kind.
However, the task force also noted that it might be a good idea to
hang on to earlier generations of technology—4G networks and
compatible systems, inertial navigation systems, even telephone land
lines—as backups, should primary electronics be taken out. --------------------------------------------------------------------
Trump issued an executive order to prepare for an EMP attack. What is
it, and should you worry?
Nah. But the U.S. should get ready for a very similar threat — from
The mushroom cloud of the first test of a hydrogen bomb, as
photographed on Enewetak, an atoll in the Pacific Ocean, in 1952.
By Christopher W. Blair ,
Casey Mahoney ,
Shira E. Pindyck and
Joshua A. Schwartz March 29
No, you don’t need to worry about a nuclear EMP. Here’s why.
“Only James Bond can save the world from an awesome space weapon that
— in one short pulse — could destroy the earth!” That’s the plot of “GoldenEye,” in which bad guys attempt to use an electromagnetic pulse
(EMP) weapon to destroy Britain’s electrical grid and send it back to
the Stone Age.
But what is an EMP, and do we really need to worry about it? If it is
a real threat, will this new executive order make a difference?
What is an EMP?
An EMP is a high-intensity surge of energy that can disrupt or destroy electronics by, essentially, overloading them. There are two ways an
EMP could potentially pose a large-scale threat to U.S. security.
The first is through the detonation of a nuclear warhead at high
altitude. We know this because, in 1962, the U.S. tested a nuclear
bomb 250 miles above the Pacific Ocean. The test led to electronic
disturbance 900 miles away in Hawaii. Specifically, streetlights were
blown out, telephones went dead, and U.S., British and Soviet
satellites were damaged.
The second is through a natural solar superstorm, known as a
geomagnetic disturbance (GMD), which has about a 10 percent chance of
occurring every decade, according to NASA. An event like this took
place in 1859 and caused telegraph circuits to catch on fire.
Though an EMP is not directly harmful to people, it could lead to
deaths by shutting down medical, transportation, communication,
banking, finance, food and water systems. In the worst possible
scenario, a large-scale EMP could have effects like Hurricane Katrina
but on a national scale.
[Candidate Trump criticized Obama's use of executive power. President
Trump likes to use executive power.]
Should you worry about EMPs? Probably not that much.
In the doomsday scenarios politicians like to talk about, an adversary
like North Korea could detonate a nuclear weapon above the United
States, causing an EMP to knock out the electrical grid.
Theoretically, any country with nuclear weapons could do this.
Fortunately, there’s little cause for concern about an EMP attack in
isolation, because a nuclear EMP attack would be just that: a nuclear
attack. Such brazen aggression would prompt an overwhelming — and most
likely nuclear — American response. Such deterrence makes it unlikely
a nuclear EMP attack would happen in the first place.
Nor is it likely that an EMP could be used to prevent U.S.
retaliation, as our nuclear infrastructure is already designed to
withstand such an attack. And nuclear-armed submarines deployed across
the world would not be affected by an EMP directed against the
continental United States.
Thus, the prospect of nuclear retaliation will almost certainly deter
[Are nuclear weapons keeping the India-Pakistan crisis from escalating
— or making it more dangerous?]
Technical challenges make an EMP attack harder still. It isn’t clear
that an EMP would have the devastating effects that some predict.
Public data are scarce, but Nobel Prize-winning physicist Jack
Steinberger says their destructive capacity is overstated. EMPs’
effects depend on many factors, like the altitude of detonation, the
yield of the warhead and the strength of Earth’s magnetic field. This
all makes it hard to predict how much damage an EMP will cause,
reducing its strategic value for governments that have only one chance
to inflict damage before being destroyed by the response.
Nor is it likely that terrorist groups could conduct a large-scale EMP
attack against the United States. Doing so would require acquiring
both a powerful nuclear warhead and a sophisticated ballistic missile
able to detonate at high altitude. Governments have many reasons not
to give nuclear weapons to terrorists. And if by some small chance
terrorists managed to acquire such technology, would they really risk
it on a relatively untested concept?
[The Trump administration wants to sell the Saudis nuclear technology,
without an agreement. That's alarming.]
A more likely terrorist attack scenario is via a high-power microwave
(HPM) device, as this kind of weapon is relatively simple and cheap to
build — the kind that’s been suspected of causing the mysterious
illnesses that have struck the U.S. diplomatic staff in Havana.
However, such a weapon would probably affect electronic devices within
only a one-mile range and thus does not pose the strategic threat that
a nuclear EMP might.
What should we be worried about? The sun.
While solar GMDs occur rarely, they can indeed interrupt power for an
entire city — as happened in Quebec for nearly nine hours in 1989.
That has the same kind of disruptive potential as a nuclear EMP.
How would a natural GMD blast be different from other large-scale
natural disasters like a hurricane? Time. Electromagnetic incidents
occur within seconds or even milliseconds over large areas of the
country, the relative unpredictability of which could undermine
disaster response. In areas where the power infrastructure is
especially interconnected, failures could cascade.
There’s also an important difference between nuclear EMPs and solar
GMDs. The former requires an attacker intent on and capable of
launching such a threat. The latter is an inevitable, natural event.
For a lot of reasons, governments and terrorists are highly unlikely
to launch an EMP attack. Space weather events, on the other hand,
happen with some regularity. The first might occur; the second
What comes next for Trump’s EMP order?
A nuclear EMP may very well be less likely than a GMD. But either way,
we don’t know whether further investments into U.S. resilience can
reduce the impact. Working to better understand the hazards to U.S. infrastructure may be a good investment to evaluate if greater
protection against EMPs is worth pursuing.
Will Trump’s executive order help accomplish this? Perhaps. But the
burden of proof remains on the administration to demonstrate whether
taxpayer dollars invested in resilience are worth taking away from
other national policy priorities.
Christopher W. Blair (@cwblair10) is a PhD candidate in international
relations at the University of Pennsylvania.
Casey Mahoney (@caseymahoney) is a PhD student in political science at
the University of Pennsylvania and was Nunn-Lugar Fellow at the U.S.
Department of Defense from 2013 to 2017.
Shira E. Pindyck (@spindyck) is a PhD candidate in international
relations at the University of Pennsylvania.
Joshua A. Schwartz (@JoshuaASchwartz) is a PhD candidate in
international relations at the University of Pennsylvania. ------------------------------------------------------------------
Executive Order on Coordinating National Resilience to Electromagnetic
INFRASTRUCTURE & TECHNOLOGY
Issued on: March 26, 2019
By the authority vested in me as President by the Constitution and the
laws of the United States of America, it is hereby ordered as follows:
Section 1. Purpose. An electromagnetic pulse (EMP) has the potential
to disrupt, degrade, and damage technology and critical infrastructure
systems. Human-made or naturally occurring EMPs can affect large
geographic areas, disrupting elements critical to the Nation’s
security and economic prosperity, and could adversely affect global
commerce and stability. The Federal Government must foster
sustainable, efficient, and cost-effective approaches to improving the
Nation’s resilience to the effects of EMPs.
Sec. 2. Definitions. As used in this order:
(a) “Critical infrastructure” means systems and assets, whether
physical or virtual, so vital to the United States that the incapacity
or destruction of such systems and assets would have a debilitating
impact on security, national economic security, national public health
or safety, or any combination of those matters.
(b) “Electromagnetic pulse” is a burst of electromagnetic energy.
EMPs have the potential to negatively affect technology systems on
Earth and in space. A high-altitude EMP (HEMP) is a type of
human-made EMP that occurs when a nuclear device is detonated at
approximately 40 kilometers or more above the surface of Earth. A
geomagnetic disturbance (GMD) is a type of natural EMP driven by a
temporary disturbance of Earth’s magnetic field resulting from
interactions with solar eruptions. Both HEMPs and GMDs can affect
large geographic areas.
(c) “National Critical Functions” means the functions of government
and the private sector so vital to the United States that their
disruption, corruption, or dysfunction would have a debilitating
effect on security, national economic security, national public health
or safety, or any combination thereof.
(d) “National Essential Functions” means the overarching
responsibilities of the Federal Government to lead and sustain the
Nation before, during, and in the aftermath of a catastrophic
emergency, such as an EMP that adversely affects the performance of
(e) “Prepare” and “preparedness” mean the actions taken to plan,
organize, equip, train, and exercise to build and sustain the
capabilities necessary to prevent, protect against, mitigate the
effects of, respond to, and recover from those threats that pose the
greatest risk to the security of the Nation. These terms include the prediction and notification of impending EMPs.
(f) A “Sector-Specific Agency” (SSA) is the Federal department or
agency that is responsible for providing institutional knowledge and specialized expertise as well as leading, facilitating, or supporting
the security and resilience programs and associated activities of its designated critical infrastructure sector in the all-hazards
environment. The SSAs are those identified in Presidential Policy
Directive 21 of February 12, 2013 (Critical Infrastructure Security
Sec. 3. Policy. (a) It is the policy of the United States to
prepare for the effects of EMPs through targeted approaches that
coordinate whole-of-government activities and encourage private-sector engagement. The Federal Government must provide warning of an
impending EMP; protect against, respond to, and recover from the
effects of an EMP through public and private engagement, planning, and investment; and prevent adversarial events through deterrence,
defense, and nuclear nonproliferation efforts. To achieve these
goals, the Federal Government shall engage in risk-informed planning, prioritize research and development (R&D) to address the needs of
critical infrastructure stakeholders, and, for adversarial threats,
consult Intelligence Community assessments.
(b) To implement the actions directed in this order, the Federal
Government shall promote collaboration and facilitate information
sharing, including the sharing of threat and vulnerability
assessments, among executive departments and agencies (agencies), the
owners and operators of critical infrastructure, and other relevant stakeholders, as appropriate. The Federal Government shall also
provide incentives, as appropriate, to private-sector partners to
encourage innovation that strengthens critical infrastructure against
the effects of EMPs through the development and implementation of best practices, regulations, and appropriate guidance.
Sec. 4. Coordination. (a) The Assistant to the President for
National Security Affairs (APNSA), through National Security Council
staff and in consultation with the Director of the Office of Science
and Technology Policy (OSTP), shall coordinate the development and implementation of executive branch actions to assess, prioritize, and
manage the risks of EMPs. The APNSA shall, on an annual basis, submit
a report to the President summarizing progress on the implementation
of this order, identifying gaps in capability, and recommending how to
address those gaps.
(b) To further the Federal R&D necessary to prepare the Nation for
the effects of EMPs, the Director of OSTP shall coordinate efforts of
agencies through the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC).
The Director of OSTP, through the NSTC, shall annually review and
assess the R&D needs of agencies conducting preparedness activities
for EMPs, consistent with this order.
Sec. 5. Roles and Responsibilities. (a) The Secretary of State
(i) lead the coordination of diplomatic efforts with United States
allies and international partners regarding enhancing resilience to
the effects of EMPs; and
(ii) in coordination with the Secretary of Defense and the heads of
other relevant agencies, strengthen nuclear nonproliferation and
deterrence efforts, which would reduce the likelihood of an EMP attack
on the United States or its allies and partners by limiting the
availability of nuclear devices.
(b) The Secretary of Defense shall:
(i) in cooperation with the heads of relevant agencies and with
United States allies, international partners, and private-sector
entities as appropriate, improve and develop the ability to rapidly characterize, attribute, and provide warning of EMPs, including
effects on space systems of interest to the United States;
(ii) provide timely operational observations, analyses, forecasts,
and other products for naturally occurring EMPs to support the mission
of the Department of Defense along with United States allies and
international partners, including the provision of alerts and warnings
for natural EMPs that may affect weapons systems, military operations,
or the defense of the United States;
(iii) conduct R&D and testing to understand the effects of EMPs on
Department of Defense systems and infrastructure, improve capabilities
to model and simulate the environments and effects of EMPs, and
develop technologies to protect Department of Defense systems and infrastructure from the effects of EMPs to ensure the successful
execution of Department of Defense missions;
(iv) review and update existing EMP-related standards for Department
of Defense systems and infrastructure, as appropriate;
(v) share technical expertise and data regarding EMPs and their
potential effects with other agencies and with the private sector, as appropriate;
(vi) incorporate attacks that include EMPs as a factor in defense
planning scenarios; and
(vii) defend the Nation from adversarial EMPs originating outside of
the United States through defense and deterrence, consistent with the
mission and national security policy of the Department of Defense.
(c) The Secretary of the Interior shall support the research,
development, deployment, and operation of capabilities that enhance understanding of variations of Earth’s magnetic field associated with
(d) The Secretary of Commerce shall:
(i) provide timely and accurate operational observations, analyses, forecasts, and other products for natural EMPs, exclusive of the responsibilities of the Secretary of Defense set forth in subsection
(b)(ii) of this section; and
(ii) use the capabilities of the Department of Commerce, the private
sector, academia, and nongovernmental organizations to continuously
improve operational forecasting services and the development of
standards for commercial EMP technology.
(e) The Secretary of Energy shall conduct early-stage R&D, develop
pilot programs, and partner with other agencies and the private
sector, as appropriate, to characterize sources of EMPs and their
couplings to the electric power grid and its subcomponents, understand associated potential failure modes for the energy sector, and
coordinate preparedness and mitigation measures with energy sector
(f) The Secretary of Homeland Security shall:
(i) provide timely distribution of information on EMPs and credible associated threats to Federal, State, and local governments, critical infrastructure owners and operators, and other stakeholders;
(ii) in coordination with the heads of any relevant SSAs, use the
results of risk assessments to better understand and enhance
resilience to the effects of EMPs across all critical infrastructure
sectors, including coordinating the identification of national
critical functions and the prioritization of associated critical
infrastructure at greatest risk to the effects of EMPs;
(iii) coordinate response to and recovery from the effects of EMPs on
critical infrastructure, in coordination with the heads of appropriate
(iv) incorporate events that include EMPs as a factor in
preparedness scenarios and exercises;
(v) in coordination with the heads of relevant SSAs, conduct R&D to
better understand and more effectively model the effects of EMPs on
national critical functions and associated critical infrastructure —
excluding Department of Defense systems and infrastructure — and
develop technologies and guidelines to enhance these functions and
better protect this infrastructure;
(vi) maintain survivable means to provide necessary emergency
information to the public during and after EMPs; and
(vii) in coordination with the Secretaries of Defense and Energy, and
informed by intelligence-based threat assessments, develop quadrennial
risk assessments on EMPs, with the first risk assessment delivered
within 1 year of the date of this order.
(g) The Director of National Intelligence shall:
(i) coordinate the collection, analysis, and promulgation, as
appropriate, of intelligence-based assessments on adversaries’
capabilities to conduct an attack utilizing an EMP and the likelihood
of such an attack; and
(ii) provide intelligence-based threat assessments to support the
heads of relevant SSAs in the development of quadrennial risk
assessments on EMPs.
(h) The heads of all SSAs, in coordination with the Secretary of
Homeland Security, shall enhance and facilitate information sharing
with private-sector counterparts, as appropriate, to enhance
preparedness for the effects of EMPs, to identify and share
vulnerabilities, and to work collaboratively to reduce
(i) The heads of all agencies that support National Essential
Functions shall ensure that their allhazards preparedness planning sufficiently addresses EMPs, including through mitigation, response,
and recovery, as directed by national preparedness policy.
Sec. 6. Implementation. (a) Identifying national critical functions
and associated priority critical infrastructure at greatest risk.
(i) Within 90 days of the date of this order, the Secretary of
Homeland Security, in coordination with the heads of SSAs and other
agencies as appropriate, shall identify and list the national critical functions and associated priority critical infrastructure systems,
networks, and assets, including space-based assets that, if disrupted,
could reasonably result in catastrophic national or regional effects
on public health or safety, economic security, or national security.
The Secretary of Homeland Security shall update this list as
(ii) Within 1 year of the identification described in subsection
(a)(i) of this section, the Secretary of Homeland Security, in
coordination with the heads of other agencies as appropriate, shall,
using appropriate government and private-sector standards for EMPs,
assess which identified critical infrastructure systems, networks, and
assets are most vulnerable to the effects of EMPs. The Secretary of
Homeland Security shall provide this list to the President, through
the APNSA. The Secretary of Homeland Security shall update this list
using the results produced pursuant to subsection (b) of this section,
and as necessary thereafter.
(b) Improving understanding of the effects of EMPs.
(i) Within 180 days of the identification described in subsection
(a)(ii) of this section, the Secretary of Homeland Security, in
coordination with the heads of SSAs and in consultation with the
Director of OSTP and the heads of other appropriate agencies, shall
review test data — identifying any gaps in such data — regarding the
effects of EMPs on critical infrastructure systems, networks, and
assets representative of those throughout the Nation.
(ii) Within 180 days of identifying the gaps in existing test data,
as directed by subsection (b)(i) of this section, the Secretary of
Homeland Security, in coordination with the heads of SSAs and in
consultation with the Director of OSTP and the heads of other
appropriate agencies, shall use the sector partnership structure
identified in the National Infrastructure Protection Plan to develop
an integrated cross-sector plan to address the identified gaps. The
heads of agencies identified in the plan shall implement the plan in collaboration with the private sector, as appropriate.
(iii) Within 1 year of the date of this order, and as appropriate
thereafter, the Secretary of Energy, in consultation with the heads of
other agencies and the private sector, as appropriate, shall review
existing standards for EMPs and develop or update, as necessary,
quantitative benchmarks that sufficiently describe the physical
characteristics of EMPs, including waveform and intensity, in a form
that is useful to and can be shared with owners and operators of
(iv) Within 4 years of the date of this order, the Secretary of the
Interior shall complete a magnetotelluric survey of the contiguous
United States to help critical infrastructure owners and operators
conduct EMP vulnerability assessments.
(c) Evaluating approaches to mitigate the effects of EMPs.
(i) Within 1 year of the date of this order, and every 2 years
thereafter, the Secretary of Homeland Security, in coordination with
the Secretaries of Defense and Energy, and in consultation with the
Director of OSTP, the heads of other appropriate agencies, and
private-sector partners as appropriate, shall submit to the President,
through the APNSA, a report that analyzes the technology options
available to improve the resilience of critical infrastructure to the
effects of EMPs. The Secretaries of Defense, Energy, and Homeland
Security shall also identify gaps in available technologies and
opportunities for future technological developments to inform R&D
(ii) Within 180 days of the completion of the activities directed by subsections (b)(iii) and (c)(i) of this section, the Secretary of
Homeland Security, in coordination with the heads of other agencies
and in consultation with the private sector as appropriate, shall
develop and implement a pilot test to evaluate available engineering
approaches for mitigating the effects of EMPs on the most vulnerable
critical infrastructure systems, networks, and assets, as identified
in subsection (a)(ii) of this section.
(iii) Within 1 year of the date of this order, the Secretary of
Homeland Security, in coordination with the heads of relevant SSAs,
and in consultation with appropriate regulatory and utility
commissions and other stakeholders, shall identify regulatory and non regulatory mechanisms, including cost recovery measures, that can
enhance private-sector engagement to address the effects of EMPs.
(d) Strengthening critical infrastructure to withstand the effects of
(i) Within 90 days of completing the actions directed in subsection
(c)(ii) of this section, the Secretary of Homeland Security, in
coordination with the Secretaries of Defense and Energy and in
consultation with the heads of other appropriate agencies and with the
private sector as appropriate, shall develop a plan to mitigate the
effects of EMPs on the vulnerable priority critical infrastructure
systems, networks, and assets identified under subsection (a)(ii) of
this section. The plan shall align with and build on actions
identified in reports required by Executive Order 13800 of May 11,
2017 (Strengthening the Cybersecurity of Federal Networks and Critical Infrastructure). The Secretary of Homeland Security shall implement
those elements of the plan that are consistent with Department of
Homeland Security authorities and resources, and report to the APNSA
regarding any additional authorities and resources needed to complete
its implementation. The Secretary of Homeland Security, in
coordination with the Secretaries of Defense and Energy, shall update
the plan as necessary based on results from the actions directed in