Electomagnetic Pulses: The Problem from Hell

R. James Woolsey

Energy issues suffuse all aspects of our lives, and concerns about the security of the nation’s electricity grid are rapidly moving front and center in the U.S. energy debate.

Since a massive solar electric storm - caused by a “coronal mass ejection” - knocked out most of the world’s telegraphs in 1859, scientists and engineers who follow such developments have worried that another such massive solar generated storm might occur. A huge geomagnetic storm of this sort, known as a “Carrington Event” could have a devastating effect on the Earth’s electric grids. One such solar event in 1989 (not large enough for the “Carrington” label), seriously damaged and blacked-out the eastern half of Canada's grid. If it had been located slightly differently and had been focused on Washington, D.C. instead of Quebec, a study by Lloyd's of London estimates 20 million Americans might have been blacked-out for a protracted period.

Until the early 1960s, there was no particular focus, however, on there being any danger to the electric grid from electromagnetic pulses (EMP) caused by humans, rather than by solar events. Both the American and Soviet military establishments were paying attention in 1962 to the effects of the final above-ground nuclear tests. The Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963 was about to come into force, so nuclear tests in the atmosphere, outer space, and under water would soon end. Both noticed that the detonation of nuclear weapons in orbits tens to hundreds of miles above the Earth destroyed electronics in far away portions of the robust but primitive vacuum tube technology of that time.

In the half century that has passed since then, the U.S. has undertaken some steps to harden those of its military electronic components that are vital to nuclear deterrence, but little else has been done.

The U.S. government regarded human-caused EMPs - especially those that would be generated by the detonation of a nuclear weapon in orbit - as just one aspect of a possible future nuclear war that might occur if deterrence failed. A few strategic missiles, aircraft and weapons, and their communications, were electronically hardened against EMP, but that was about it.

In the meantime, however, civilian energy issues were beginning to enter the EMP picture for two reasons.

First, in recent years we have come to be, in William Davidow’s phrase “over-connected” and we have also come to live in the midst of an “internet of things.” It is not only our telephones that are connected, but everything else as well. We have 18 critical infrastructures in the U.S., including electricity - for example, food, water, telecommunications, finance, etc. All 17 of the others depend on electricity in order to function.

If the electric grid goes down for a period longer than emergency backup power is available - as was the case e.g., for some electricity consumers during Hurricane Sandy two years ago - affected electricity consumers aren’t just transported back into the mid-80s, pre-internet. They are, rather, transported back into the 1880s, pre-electricity. Very few of us have enough wells, hand pumps, plow horses, and seed stocks to live in an 1880s world.

An EMP can also travel for thousands of miles on the grid’s transmission lines, destroying transformers, control systems and other critical equipment as it goes.

The problem is not just that some things wouldn't work. Nothing would work. Not water purification. Not food storage. Not medical care. Not transportation. Nothing. Estimates from the Congressional chartered EMP Commission indicate that those killed by such effects could total, within a year, somewhere between two thirds and 90% of the U.S. population.

The second major source of vulnerability to EMP is thatmodern micro-electronics that are the heart of our interconnections are over a million times more capable than were electronics in the early 1960s, but they are also over a million times more vulnerable.

Because of these developments, the detonation of a small nuclear device in low-earth orbit (tens to hundreds of miles above the earth) in a small satellite would mean that it is not only the lights that would go out.

For example, reflect for a moment on what you own. Apart from real estate, your property and savings are normally not anything that you can store, protect, and observe - they are rather a particular record of ones and zeros in a computer somewhere. If the pattern of ones and zeros is obliterated by EMP, what do you own? Even if you kept a hand-written record, how do you prove its validity?

Further, an EMP is easier to bring about than one would hope.

The most destructive EMP generated by a nuclear detonation is caused by the gamma rays that come from the detonation, not by the explosive blast. So a small, simple weapon, of say, a few kilotons could produce an EMP that, depending on the altitude in which it was detonated, could destroy a major part, or essentially all, of the nation’s electric grid. The reason that it can be so effective is that the short wave-length highly energetic electromagnetic shockwave can destroy small and large electronics of all kinds, inflicting deep damage on the critical infrastructures.

An EMP can also travel for thousands of miles on the grid’s transmission lines, destroying transformers, control systems and other critical equipment as it goes. Transformers are the heart of the grid. If they are destroyed, replacement of the large, Extra-High Voltage (EHV) transformers can take years. The EHV transformers are not made in the U.S. and are so large and heavy that they are very difficult to move. They are also designed for a specific function in a specific part of the grid. The EHV transformers are thus, generally, not fungible.

Ballistic missile defenses (BMD) of the sort that we are half-heartedly pursuing are largely ineffective against an EMP caused by a simple nuclear weapon in a small satellite launched into low- Earth orbit.

One reason for BMD’s lack of effectiveness is that our defensive systems face north and the Russians have admitted to us that they have not only developed, but have passed on to North Koreans, the approach towards launching satellites or missiles called a “fractional orbit bombardment system.” This is simply launching a satellite to the south into orbit instead of on an arcing ballistic trajectory over the North Pole, so the satellite’s first approach comes at the U.S. from the south, and would hit us with a surprise EMP attack from our blindside. The United States has no Ballistic Missile Early Warning Radars or missile interceptors facing south.

Deterrence will not work in a world of existential threats that can be delivered anonymously.

Whether it is a ballistic missile targeted on the U.S. and designed to proceed immediately toward a target on land, or is the first orbit of a satellite carrying a weapon able to be detonated whenever the launcher wants, our defensive systems are not focused on such a southern-hemisphere bound launch. Even if they were, how could we tell if a North Korean launch of a small satellite contained a harmless communications package or a small nuclear weapon that could be exploded at any time over the years to come?

This last threat described above is not merely theoretical, but may already be real. North Korea is orbiting its KSM-3 satellite over the United States, regularly passing over the U.S. from our southern blindside, at the optimum trajectory and altitude to place an EMP field over the 48 contiguous United States--if KSM-3 is a small nuclear warhead disguised as a satellite.

It would not help with this problem if we were to move toward an BMD approach - boost-phase intercept - which a number of us have advocated over the years. We can’t see inside a launched missile or satellite.

It should be stressed that the deterrence as we utilized it during the Cold War depended upon our adversaries, such as the USSR, knowing that they could not successfully attack us anonymously. They knew that any nuclear attack by them on us would be met by a devastating response.

But deterrence will not work in a world of existential threats that can be delivered anonymously. And with respect to EMP today, if the lights go out, it may be a solar magnetic storm, or it may be North Korea. We may not know.

There has been substantial delay in dealing with EMP caused by the finger pointing of different organizations as corporations and government agencies seek to avoid responsibility and the cost of paying for solutions. The funding and management of the U.S. electricity grid is extremely complex and there are many federal, state, local, and corporate entities involved. The most aggravating aspect of the EMP problem is that key steps that would substantially improve the grid’s resilience are, according to the EMP Commission’s estimates, not extremely expensive. The Commission estimates that the national electric grid could be protected for about US $2.0 billion - approximately what we give Pakistan in military aid annually.

We should move immediately to take the technical steps to improve grid resilience that are authorized by the SHIELD Act, now before the House, or the GRID Act, now before the Senate.

Above all, we need to confront those agencies, trade associations, corporations, lobbyist, and White House officials, who are fighting against spending even the modest funds that could move us towards grid resilience. They should be asked to respond publicly whether because of their delays and inaction, they really want to run the risk of being responsible, essentially, for the death of our civilization.


R. James Woolsey is a national security and energy specialist and former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency

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