When the Lights Go Out and the Music Stops

If an enemy of the United States — either a hostile state or a non-state actor — were ever to detonate a nuclear device in low orbit over the continental United States, the resulting electromagnetic pulse (EMP) could be devastating. The power grid, various electronic devices, and other high-tech infrastructure within the blast radius would be rendered useless, so that a large chunk of the country would lose most of its post-1850 technology — but without reacquiring the earlier systems of agricultural and industrial production that sustained the population in the days before electrification.

EMPs also appear at extended intervals by natural means, i.e. through solar flares. Before the modern grid was in place, such a flare would have little or no effect on human civilization, but everything has changed since then. 21st-century technology is uniquely vulnerable to the threat of an EMP, no matter its origin.

Frank Gaffney and the Center for Security Policy have been raising public awareness for years about the potential dangers to the United States posed by an EMP. The following press release concerns a panel discussion on the topic hosted by CSP this past Monday, and features former CIA Director James Woolsey.

A video of the event is included in the press release. Mr. Woolsey is a superb speaker, and his introduction to the topic is the most concise and lucid exposition about EMPs that I have ever seen. I highly recommend watching the video.

For more information, see CSP’s “Infrastructure and EMP” website.

Former CIA Director Woolsey Warns of Existential Threat to America

Washington, D.C.: On July 29th, President Bill Clinton’s former Director of Central Intelligence, R. James Woolsey, led a panel discussion on the growing — and perhaps imminent — threat of a natural or nuclear electromagnetic pulse (EMP) to the U.S. electric grid and other critical infrastructures that sustain modern civilization and the lives of millions of Americans. The event was sponsored by the newly established EMP Coalition, of which Mr. Woolsey is the Honorary Co-Chair along with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich

Other participants were Ambassador Henry Cooper and Dr. Peter Vincent Pry. Ambassador Cooper led strategic arms control negotiations with the USSR under President Reagan and served as the Director of the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization under President George H.W. Bush. His is currently the Chairman of High Frontier, an organization dedicated to protecting the United States from nuclear attack. Dr. Pry served on the Congressional EMP Threat Commission, as a professional staff member on the House Armed Services Committee and as an analyst in the CIA. He is now the Executive Director of the Task Force on National and Homeland Security, a congressional advisory board dedicated to national resiliency in the face of EMP and other threats.

Highlights of the program included the following:

  • Mr. Woolsey warned that the sun can inflict localized EMP disasters, like the 1989 Hydro-Quebec geomagnetic storm that blacked out eastern Canada, causing billions of dollars in economic losses. He noted that a recent study by insurance industry leader Lloyds of London estimated that if the 1989 geo-storm struck the east coast of the United States, 20-40 million Americans might be blacked out for as long as two years. A rare geomagnetic super-storm, like the 1859 Carrington Event, would collapse electric grids and life-sustaining critical infrastructures everywhere on Earth, putting at risk the lives of billions.
  • Scientists estimate that the world is overdue for another Carrington Event, and the Sun has already entered its solar maximum that shall last through 2013, when a catastrophic geo-storm is more likely to occur, Woolsey said.
  • Mr. Woolsey warned that an EMP catastrophe may also be imminent from terrorists and/or rogue states armed with nuclear weapons. North Korea already has nuclear missiles, Iran nearly so, and these two are actively collaborating. A single nuclear weapon detonated at high-altitude over this country would collapse the electric grid and other critical infrastructures and endanger the lives of millions.
  • Woolsey emphasized that the hundreds of electric utilities in the United States have thus far not acted to protect themselves from EMP, and cannot be expected to do so voluntarily as national defense and homeland security is a U.S. government responsibility. Woolsey urged that government regulation, by passage of the Secure High-voltage Infrastructure for Electricity from Lethal Damage (SHIELD) Act now before Congress, is necessary to protect the national electric grid.
  • Ambassador Cooper noted that the world escaped an EMP catastrophe just two weeks ago, when a huge Carrington-class coronal mass ejection crossed the path of the Earth’s orbit, but narrowly missed our planet.
  • Amb. Cooper warned that, given our nation’s current state of unpreparedness, if a natural or nuclear EMP catastrophe struck today, blacking out the electrical grid and other critical infrastructures for a year, as many as ninety percent of the American people could perish from starvation, disease and societal collapse. This assessment is from the Congressional EMP Commission that examined the EMP threat for nearly a decade, including performing numerous scientific experiments and producing what is widely regarded as the definitive study of critical infrastructure vulnerabilities and solutions.
  • Amb. Cooper warned that North Korea may already have the capability to make a catastrophic EMP attack on the United States. On December 2012, Cooper said, North Korea used its so-called Space Launch Vehicle like a Fractional Orbital Bombardment System — a secret weapon invented by the Russians during the Cold War to deliver a stealthy nuclear attack on the United States by orbiting a nuclear weapon over the south polar region, bypassing U.S. Ballistic Missile Early Warning radars (BMEWs) and missile defenses. Cooper noted that the U.S. has no BMEWs radars or missile interceptors facing south. North Korea apparently orbited a satellite over the south polar region on a trajectory and altitude consistent with making a surprise nuclear EMP attack against the United States.
  • Amb. Cooper said the needed solution would be to utilize the sensors and weapons aboard AEGIS anti-missile ships and such missiles ashore to protect the U.S. southern flank and east coast from nuclear EMP attack and to harden the electric grid by passage of the SHIELD Act.
  • Dr. Pry warned that a disturbing confluence of events suggests an EMP attack might be imminent. Pry noted that thousands of cyber attacks using computer viruses and hacking are probing the defenses of U.S. critical infrastructures, searching for weaknesses.
  • Dr. Pry observed that the foreign military doctrines of potential adversaries such as Iran, North Korea, China and Russia, all include acts of sabotage and kinetic attacks — including nuclear EMP attack — as part of their planning for an all-out Information Warfare or Cyber Warfare Operation. Pry noted that recently, in April, a sabotage attempt was made against electric grid transformers near San Jose, CA, that damaged five transformers with fire from AK-47 assault rifles.
  • Moreover, according to Dr. Pry, the North Korean freighter Chong Chon Gang recently intercepted and undergoing inspection in Panama under suspicion of drug smuggling, was discovered to have in its hold two nuclear-capable SA-2 missiles. The missiles were without nuclear warheads, Pry said, but the incident is disturbingly like the EMP Commission’s nightmare scenario of a nuclear EMP attack launched from a freighter off the U.S. coast, to conceal the identity of the attacker and escape retaliation. Pry said “connecting the dots” between cyber attacks, sabotage by AK-47s, a North Korean freighter carrying nuclear capable missiles in the Caribbean may warrant a crash program to protect the nation’s electric grid.

All panelists endorsed the SHIELD Act, urged that the Department of Homeland Security develop a new National Planning Scenario focused on EMP, and encouraged other states to follow the example of Maine, not wait for Washington, but pass state initiatives to protect their electric grids from EMP now.

Video of the event and additional information about the EMP Coalition, its partners and their efforts to secure our grid from all hazards can be obtained at www.StopEMP.org.

13 thoughts on “When the Lights Go Out and the Music Stops

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  2. A very interesting discussion. Glen Reynolds, Instapundit, has been talking about this for years; just how vulnerable our electrical grid is to attack and natural disasters like an EMP from the sun.
    Two weeks ago we had a violent thunder storm and a large old tree next to our home was struck by lightening. It cleaved the tree in half and traveled into the ground. It traveled through our electronic dog fence to our garage and burned out all the electronics for the phone, internet and TV connections as well as our dog fence. Several circuit breakers blew and many of the ground fault interceptors in our electrical outlets also blew (saving the small appliances.) I don’t know if lightening qualifies as an EMP but I can only imagine that a full scale attack would leave us all in the state we were in after Sandy; blind and cold.

    • I have to admit that I hadn’t listened to the entire lecture before posting my previous thought. It turns out that lightening is an EMP. So, what these gentlemen are talking about is what we experienced on a small scale. We were able to call in technicians to fix our problems; the lightening literally burned up the electronics. Imagine having this happen on a large scale.

  3. This meeting discussion is very interesting. Thank you for presenting it. I have been interested in EMP and CME effects on our infrastructure for some time. It is distressing that much of this information is unheeded by those who can do the most to mitigate the effects or at least prepare to meet them, particularly in the civilian sector and our legislatures.

    As an aside, the Air Force has a very interesting historical video about efforts of the military to meet EMP threats and harden aircraft, tanks, and such against the effect of electromagnetic pulses. The construction of a huge wooden structure called The Trestle at Kirtland AFB to test protective measures is fascinating. See the video at: http://www.ece.unm.edu/summa/notes/trestle_movie.html

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  5. Good time to buy a pre-1970 car (no onboard computers/chips)

    and stock up on a few months worth of food and water/water purifiers.

    Tooling around in a Rambler Ambassador eating reconstituted fettuccine Alfredo

    while the rest of society is going Mad Max sounds like a plan.

    • If EMP is your fear, only a mechanical Diesel will work. That would be pre-about 1985. MBZ OM616/OM617/OM617a, VW Rabbit/Dasher/Caddy, older Kubota, older Cummins, GM 6.2L (ugh.), Detroit Diesel, many others.

      Gasoline engines with points-ignition will work. Without “the system”, getting fuel will be difficult. Look to extra shoes and bicycles.

  6. It is important to distinguish between natural production of EMP by various sources and the type of EMP that is only produced by nuclear weapons. Most natural sources of EMP can be mitigated significantly by the same mechanisms that will protect against local lightning strikes (though of course an EMP generated by solar conditions will have a global impact). But a nuclear detonation in the ionosphere will generate an additional type of EMP that normal surge prevention devices will not successfully mitigate in any important degree. The good news is that this type of particularly dangerous EMP will only significantly affect a very limited region. The bad news is that it is extremely expensive to shield against. The better news is that making effective use of this EMP to affect critical systems means specific targeting of the nuclear device to explode in fairly particular locations. The worst news is that, while the military currently takes pains to ensure that certain equipment can survive nuclear device EMP, this is far too expensive an approach to be feasible for protection of civilian infrastructure and equipment, and there is currently a significant lack of ability to intercept delivery of a nuclear device to the ionosphere.

    For protection of the civilian infrastructure and equipment, hardening them to withstand natural sources of EMP is sensible and indeed necessary. For protection against the type of EMP produced only by nuclear detonation, deployment of defensive systems capable of destroying such a device en-route is far more cost effective and can avert other undesirable effects of allowing nuclear devices to be delivered into and through the space above one’s national territory.

    This is why the discussion bifurcates into a discussion of hardening the civilian infrastructure and establishing a military defense capable of disabling/destroying nuclear devices en route. An anti-ballistic defense cannot prevent or mitigate natural sources of EMP. It is not economically possible to militarily harden the entire critical civilian infrastructure against nuclear device EMP. Hardening the civilian infrastructure against natural (and the more dispersed area effect of secondary EMP resulting from a nuclear device EMP) is possible and necessary. A system capable of eliminating nuclear devices being delivered through the ionosphere over national territory is also possible and necessary.

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  9. Below is a copy of a response I got from a friend in America (a fellow motorcyclist) when I asked him about China launching an EMP attack on the US some 6 years ago. Frank has since passed away but spent his working years as a rocket scientist – worked on the space shuttle & other projects right up until retirement when as a contractor, he was working on protecting military computers from EMP. As may be discerned from his response he was a Democrat and the answer does not include a non-state actor terrorist attack, but there is still pertinent info here, such as it taking merely a week to recover from an EMP attack. I’ll leave those more knowledgeable in the area to comment on that.

    “Yes the Chinese, like any other major power, would dearly love to devise some sort of “super weapon”, but an exoatmospheric EMP generator has some very serious drawbacks. It would have to be driven by one or a collection of nuclear bombs, and there would be inescapable side effects. First, and by far the most important, China is beginning to put their own spacecraft (and astronauts) into orbit, and they could not set off nuclear devices in orbit without damaging their own spacecraft. Second, their own internal development – cities, dams, etc. – is vulnerable to US retaliation, and they also could not assume that Russia would sit idly by while the International Space Station and various Russian civilian and military spacecraft would be damaged or destroyed. If the parts of the Chinese government who are intent on financing their internal growth through exports to the US were allowed to protest, I am pretty confident that military leaders would be over ridden. And finally, any responsible Chinese leader must assume that George Bush and Dick Chaney would ignore threats of retaliation and order a heavy counter strike – they have demonstrated often enough that they don’t care about civilian casualties.

    As far as the technical aspects are concerned, the US is both more and less vulnerable to EMP disturbances than has been the case in the past. On the communication end of things, most of the high data rate information is carried by fiber optic lines, which are not vulnerable. 20 years ago, when I did that sort of thing for a living, we kept wishing for more fiber, less copper; that has since
    come to pass. On the other hand, our electric power grid is very
    vulnerable to any interruption, and it is getting worse. A single EMP event could well knock out, say one third of the country, and it would be a week to get everything put back. There have been ice storms in Quebec, and overload induced blackouts in the northeast US already. The larger the area, the worse the chaos. The local emergency responders are increasingly crippled by the diversion of National Guard troops and equipment to Iraq, which would add to the suffering.”

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