Fatal Inaction

The U.S. remains vulnerable to EMP attacks.

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If all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you jump too? The answer clearly depends on how high the bridge is, but what the question really asks is if carelessly following others is in fact sensible.

The question comes to mind when debating whether to protect critical national infrastructure against large scale electromagnetic pulse, or EMP, events. Although EMP is a well-documented security issue, and one of the very few things that experts believe can dramatically alter our modern way of life, the U.S. government has sadly followed the lead of too many others and done little. This inaction could well prove fatal.

An EMP event can originate naturally from a large solar flare, or artificially as the product of a manmade nuclear detonation occurring high in the Earth's atmosphere. If high energy particles are sent streaming toward Earth from a nuclear explosion (particularly an explosion at an altitude between 25 and 250 miles above the surface) or from a solar flare, the particles will interact with the Earth's magnetic field and wreak havoc on any unhardened electrical infrastructure below.

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For years now, the U.S. military has taken measures to guard against the EMP threat for at least some of its critical terrestrial systems. However, the pillars of U.S. civil society – including the nation's electric grid, telecommunications networks, banking and financial sectors, fuel/energy supply systems and food and water supply infrastructures – remain largely vulnerable to an EMP attack.

Not so in other countries around the world. A number of nations (most notably Israel and Norway) have taken the EMP threat seriously, and are proactively upgrading their national infrastructures and putting procedures in place to deal with an EMP event.

Because an EMP event on a devastating scale has not yet occurred, critics in the U.S. have discounted the threat as nothing more than science fiction. Accordingly, they have dismissed the need to prepare for one, and policymakers in Washington have followed suit.

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That represents a dangerous error. As a number of notable U.S. experts and officials have warned, the threat posed by EMP is very real and potentially devastating. For example, John Holdren, the Obama administration's current top science and technology advisor, himself warned about the threat of EMP events in a March 10, 2011 New York Times article in which he cautioned that “[a large EMP event] impact could be big – on the order of $2 trillion during the first year in the United States alone, with a recovery period of 4 to 10 years."

This assessment is not new. Indeed, already a decade ago, the congressionally-mandated Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse Attack presented its report to Congress containing recommendations on how to protect the country. Sadly, 10 years of inaction have followed.

The threat, meanwhile, has only grown. Both Russia and China have experimented with EMP weapons and understand their strategic value. More troubling still is the fact that rogue states such as Iran and North Korea have given clear indications that they are attempting to add EMP attacks to their offensive playbooks.

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Fortunately, there are steps the U.S. can take to address the threat. In its day, the EMP Commission identified transformers as the "backbone" of the electrical grid and suggested that hardening this component could be a cost effective measure to counter EMP attack. Estimates vary, but studies have shown that protective measures can be developed to protect the U.S. electric grid for as low $2 billion – a small price to pay, if the financial cost associated with an EMP event is 1,000 times greater.

A concerted effort should be undertaken to ensure that the Secure High-voltage Infrastructure for Electricity from Lethal Damage (SHIELD) Act clears in the U.S. House of Representatives and does not get stonewalled in the Senate. If passed, the bill would "protect the bulk-power system and electric infrastructure critical to the defense and well-being of the United States against natural and manmade electromagnetic pulse (‘EMP') threats and vulnerabilities."

At a time when the U.S. is more dependent than ever on technology, the federal government and the private sector must join hands to eliminate this dangerous vulnerability. The potential costs of not doing so are simply far too great.

Richard M. Harrison is the Director of Operations and Defense Technology Programs at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, D.C.

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