LONDON — It reads like the plot of an Avengers movie in which the good guys fail to stop a cataclysmic event and America is thrown into catastrophic and irreversible ruin.
A sneak attack renders military bases across the country unable to function. Our national electric grid, including backup generators, completely fails, taking out everything — from fresh water and sewage management to cell service, emergency hospital generators, and all means of communication — along with it. Without electricity to cool them, 99 nuclear reactors across America completely melt down, sending radioactive clouds into the atmosphere while choking millions in the communities around them. Within hours, riots and civil unrest engulf every city, as anxiety and fear give way to looting and rioting.
This deadly scenario might sound like the stuff of science fiction. In truth, it’s what could happen in the immediate aftermath of a type of attack that few Americans know very little about: an electromagnetic pulse, or EMP. As a recently declassified report about a summit of scientists from more than 40 agencies outside of Washington last year makes clear, America is nearly defenseless right now against such an attack and completely unprepared for its potential aftermath. The report, from the United States Air Force Academy and the Curtis E. LeMay Center for Doctrine Development and Education, confirmed the findings of a recent congressional committee: Given how much we rely on electricity, an EMP attack could devastate our nation and kill just as many Americans, if not more, as a nuclear attack. It will simply take longer.
And the worst part is, North Korea, Russia, and Iran reportedly have Super-EMP weapons right now. As the Trump administration proposes to vastly expand America’s military budget again, it is time for us to take this existential threat seriously and make the protection of our national electric grid a national priority.
An electromagnetic pulse is a rapid, intense burst of electromagnetic energy that lasts for less than a second, radiates at the speed of light and, in an instant, can pass thousands of volts of electricity through anything that conducts electricity. EMPs can be generated by a nuclear explosion high above the earth’s surface, which releases gamma rays that interact with the atmosphere to produce a kind of nuclear storm. An EMP doesn’t directly harm humans since our bodies don’t conduct electricity — it just renders nearly everything human beings rely upon to survive in our modern world, from computers to cars to entire communications systems, unrepairable and completely useless.
We have already seen the realities of an EMP attack. In 1962, America accidentally tested an EMP on itself, when the Starfish Prime atmospheric nuclear test 900 miles from Hawaii “knocked out electrical service in Hawaii” as Smithsonian Magazine described it, inducing a chaotic scene where “service was disrupted, streetlights were down and burglar alarms were set off by a pulse that was much larger than scientists expected.” Today, the U.S. understands the potential power of this phenomenon and has deliberately tested high-powered microwave weapons that short out electrical devices through EMP. So have our adversaries.
The possibility of an EMP attack on the U.S. is far from theoretical. For instance, while North Korea’s nuclear threat to the U.S. is widely understood, policymakers are turning a blind eye to the real danger: North Korea has the capability, in the form of its ballistic missiles or orbiting satellites, to launch an EMP attack against us. US intelligence has reported on a new generation of EMP weapons small enough to fit inside an orbiting satellite. Right now, Pyongyang has two satellites in orbit above the U.S. As Henry Cooper, the former Director of the US Strategic Defense Initiative, has written, as cited in a recent article by Dr. Peter Pry, “North Korea … could use its demonstrated satellite launcher to carry a nuclear device over the South Polar region and detonate it over the United States,” creating an EMP that would “shut down the U.S. electric grid for an indefinite period.”
Following North Korea’s last nuclear test in September 2017, the state news agency carried an official statement boasting that the rogue nation had tested “a multifunctional thermonuclear nuke with great destructive power which can be detonated even at high altitudes for super-powerful EMP attack.”
Even in the absence of nuclear capacity, our adversaries could still harness EMP power to mount an attack. Such a weapon — known as an e-bomb — works like a simple radio transmitter, generating a magnetic field by fluctuating electrical currents in a circuit. However, unlike a radio transmitter, an e-bomb induces an intense enough surge of electrical current on any surrounding conductive object — from power lines to metal pipes — that can destroy circuitry on electrical components.
But whatever the means, the end result is the same: a crippled electric grid, and short-term chaos followed by long-term catastrophe.
What, then, can we do to counter the EMP threat?
First, we need to strengthen our missile defenses. Currently, the U.S. has only one system to destroy long-range ballistic missile threats in space; most American missile defenses are short-range systems that may not be capable of hitting a long-range missile or satellite at high altitudes. We need adversaries like North Korea to know we’re capable of shooting down their missiles and satellites — and we won’t hesitate to do it.
Pry argues we must preemptively shoot down North Korea’s satellites currently in orbit because they may already be equipped to launch EMP attacks. But without solid evidence to support his argument, this is a tough sell for a U.S. administration hoping to avoid war, make progress on denuclearization in negotiations with North Korea, and avoid setting a precedent for China, Russia, and others to shoot down satellites and conduct military activities in space. Should the North Korea threat continue to escalate, we must be prepared to shoot it down. We should not be hesitant to make certain North Korea emphatically understands the end game. We will not allow North Korea to increase their nuclear capabilities. And, if they do, retaliation will be swift and punishing.
In dealing with North Korea, we should reach out to China as a possible ally. As Richard Haass writes, “North Korea could be the best thing for the relationship between the United States and China since the collapse of the Soviet Union.”
China is North Korea’s largest trading partner — and Beijing hardly wants its aggressive neighbor to further destabilize the region with the threat of nuclear weapons. We should offer China the opportunity to work with us and to use its influence to push for a nuclear-free, EMP-free Korean Peninsula.
As Haass writes, “The question for China is whether it is prepared to put enough pressure on North Korea so that it accepts meaningful constraints on its nuclear and missile programs.” Otherwise, the U.S. will have no choice but to take matters into its own hands.
Second, we should modernize the electric grid, so that one attack does not paralyze our entire nation’s core capabilities.
Currently, the U.S. national grid consists of three regional systems, covering the eastern half of the country, the western half, and a separate grid for Texas. Realizing its vulnerability, Texas has already explored options for EMP mitigation, which while costly, could provide a bulwark against a growing trend in technological warfare: from shielding control rooms to grounding supply and communications cables to installing protectors against surges. We should turn the forward-thinking approach of Texas policymakers into a national strategy.
Third, both the public and private sectors need to coordinate an emergency preparedness plan to protect critical infrastructure in the case of an EMP attack. For communities and businesses, that means buying backup power generators or other energy sources that would allow them to continue operations if disaster strikes. For local and municipal governments, this means developing recovery plans that allow law enforcement, schools, and other essential services to operate off the grid.
Whether it’s a natural disaster or an adversary that causes the next great American power outage, the results will be devastating. But if no precautions are taken, nothing will be as disastrous as our leadership’s moral failure to protect its people from this existential threat.