OP-ED: Eliminating the threat of an EMP
Ask almost any American to name the most potentially devastating threats to our security, and the chances that “electromagnetic pulse” will come up are extremely slim. And yet an EMP is a frighteningly real possibility.
An EMP, simply put, is a burst of electromagnetic energy. It can be caused by the sun during solar storms — or by a nuclear weapon detonated at a high altitude.
The life-changing effects of such a pulse, which could ruin electronic devices in large sections of the country, are obvious. An electromagnetic pulse or a similar event would fry electric circuits and damage critical infrastructure, paralyzing the country.
Our life depends on a stable supply of electricity more now than at any other point in our history. Suddenly losing electricity would be truly devastating. Think “Jericho” or “The Walking Dead” (minus the zombies).
This is not pie-in-the-sky business. North Korea’s ballistic missiles are now capable of reaching the United States. It also possesses nuclear weapons, and its official documents talk about using an EMP against the United States.
Thankfully, the Trump administration is alert to this threat and is taking steps to confront it. The White House recently unveiled an executive order titled “Coordinating National Resilience to Electromagnetic Pulses.” This is a necessary first step in what will be a difficult road to creating full protection from an EMP.
The president’s executive order assigns Cabinet secretaries with electromagnetic pulse-related responsibilities. For example, the secretary of state is given the task of leading coordination efforts with U.S. allies and international partners. The secretary of defense is put in charge of improving and developing the ability to rapidly characterize, attribute and provide warning of an electromagnetic pulse.
Other responsibilities are assigned to the secretaries of commerce, homeland security, energy, and the director of national intelligence.
The executive order mandates that the assistant to the president for national security affairs, through the National Security Council staff, be in charge of coordinating “the development and implementation of executive branch actions to assess, prioritize, and manage the risks of (electromagnetic pulses).”
Delegating this issue to the National Security Council staff carries a risk, given the council’s relatively high staff turnover rate. The administration will have to ensure that mandated action items are delivered according to the timelines outlined in the executive order.
While the U.S. military currently tests its equipment to withstand the effects of an electromagnetic pulse, no such comparable effort is ongoing in the civilian world. For the most part, the military depends on the civilian power grid to meet its own power needs, which makes it all the more puzzling that it doesn’t pay much attention to whether the civilian systems are secure. There are no easy ways to harden the grid and increase its resilience.
The most critical task is to increase the key stakeholders’ (e.g., electric companies and owners of the grid) access to information about electromagnetic pulses and align authority and responsibility in both the public and private sectors in order to prepare for and respond to an EMP attack.
The president’s executive order is a good first stepping stone. With the right amount of prevention, the effects of an EMP can remain the province of science-fiction shows – and not become a catastrophic reality.
— Michaela Dodge is a research fellow for missile defense and nuclear deterrence in the Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy at The Heritage Foundation.