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June 23, 2022 | Robert Bergman
If there ever is an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack anywhere, Dr. Peter Pry will have every right to say, “I told you so.” He has been warning of the dangers of an EMP attack since at least 2004, when the Congressional EMP Commission he headed reported that terrorists or state actors with relatively unsophisticated missiles armed with nuclear weapons may well calculate that they may gain the greatest political-military utility by using them in an EMP attack on the U.S. Consequences range from simply gaining military advantage from threatening to use them to a nationwide EMP-caused blackout, in which 90% of the U.S. population could perish from starvation, disease and societal breakdown.
Making the U.S vulnerable to such an attack is our increasingly pervasive use of digital technology in all forms. “Electronics are used to control, communicate, compute, store, manage, and implement nearly every aspect of United States (U.S.) civilian systems. When a nuclear explosion occurs at high altitude, the EMP signal it produces will cover the wide geographic region within the line of sight of the detonation. This broadband, high-amplitude EMP, when coupled into sensitive electronics, has the capability to produce widespread and long-lasting disruption and damage to the critical infrastructures that underpin the fabric of U.S. society,” write the authors of the Report of the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack, to which Pry contributed.
How likely is an EMP attack today? Over the past decade, now as executive director of the non-governmental EMP Task Force on National and Homeland Security, Pry has detailed his analysis in separate analyses of the threats from Russia, China, North Korea and Iran.
In a January 2021 report titled Russia: EMP Threat (The Russian Federation’s Military Doctrine, Plans, and Capabilities for Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) the commission said that Russia categorizes HEMP attacks as Information, Electronic or Cyber Warfare. Here are some of the points estimated or identified as probable:
- Any nuclear weapon detonated in outer space, 30 kilometers or higher, would generate a “high-altitude electromagnetic pulse (HEMP) damaging all kinds of electronics, blacking-out electric grids and collapsing other life-sustaining critical infrastructures” and makes the following other assertions:
- Russia has “Super-EMP” weapons and has conducted nuclear HEMP tests that probably mean that Russia knows a lot more about HEMP effects than the United States.
- Hypersonic vehicles are potentially a new avenue for surprise HEMP attack, flying at 50-100 kilometers altitude: the optimum height-of-burst for Super-EMP warheads. Russia has the technical capability to clandestinely orbit a nuclear-armed satellite or satellites to be maintained in orbit for years until needed to make a surprise HEMP attack.
- Russia probably remains the world’s leader in Non-Nuclear EMP (NNEMP) weapons, also called Radio-Frequency Weapons (RFWs). Marriage of NNEMP to drones or cruise missiles, equipped with sensors to follow high-power electric lines and target control centers and transformers, introduces a major new threat to national power grids.
The commission issued its report on China in 2020. As with Russia, it concluded that China’s military doctrine closely associates cyber-attacks with nuclear HEMP attack, what China calls Total Information Warfare, in which cyber security was the tip of the spear. It says that the people’s republic of China’s Air Force Engineering University describes nuclear EMP weapons as the most powerful and effective variant of electronic warfare weapons for waging Information Warfare. Following are among the highlights of the China report:
- China has long known about nuclear high-altitude electromagnetic pulse (HEMP) and is continuing to invest in protecting military forces and critical infrastructures from HEMP and other nuclear weapon effects.
- China has HEMP simulators and defensive and offensive programs that are almost certainly more robust than any in the United States.
- Chinese military writings are replete with references to making HEMP attacks against the United States as a means of prevailing in war.
- China reportedly has a Super-EMP atomic weapon design based on stolen information from U.S. nuclear weapon labs, and that China allegedly “used spies in the United States and engaged Russian technical consultants, resulting in the successful manufacture of a mini bomb using implosion technology.”
The EMP Task Force issued its analysis of the North Korean threat in 2021. It says the West consistently underestimates the advancement, sophistication, and strategic implications of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs.
- North Korea’s KMS-3 and KMS-4 satellites orbit over the U.S. daily. Their trajectories are near optimal for a HEMP attack on the U.S. if they are nuclear-armed. HEMP attack does not require much accuracy or a reentry vehicle capable of penetrating the atmosphere and is well within North Korea’s technological capabilities.
- Multiple credible foreign sources allege the design for Russia’s Super-EMP nuclear weapon leaked or was transferred to North Korea and that North Korea has developed Super-EMP weapons.
- According to North Korea state media, their September 2017 H-bomb test is also a Super-EMP weapon: “The H-bomb, the explosive power of which is adjustable from tens of kilotons to hundreds of kilotons, is a multifunctional thermonuclear nuke with great destructive power which can be detonated at high altitudes for super-powerful EMP according to strategic goals.”
- North Korea has non-nuclear EMP weapons including an “EMP Cannon” that was used to impose an “electromagnetic blockade” on air traffic to Seoul, South Korea.
Elsewhere, Pry presents a scenario on how an attack from North Korea might play out. They could launch an EMP attack against the United States by launching a short-range Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) missile from a freighter or submarine or by lofting a warhead to a 30-kilometer burst height by balloon. While such lower-altitude EMP attacks would not cover the entire U.S. mainland, as would an attack at higher-altitude (300 kilometers), even a balloon-lofted warhead detonated at 30 kilometers could blackout the Eastern Grid that supports most of the population and generates 75 percent of U.S. electricity.
The task force analysis of the Iranian threat came in April of 2022. It challenges what it calls Washington’s bipartisan consensus that Iran does not yet have nuclear weapons or missiles capable of threatening the United States with nuclear attack, joining others who believe that Iran should be regarded as a nuclear missile state capable of posing an existential threat to the United States and its allies. Here are some of the highlights of the report:
- Iran probably has nuclear warheads for the Shahab-III medium-range missile, which they have tested for making EMP attacks.
- Iran has hundreds of medium-range and short-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs and SRBMs), if armed with a nuclear warhead, any of these could be fused for high-altitude EMP burst.
- Although Iran has not demonstrated a military intercontinental missile equipped with a reentry vehicle capable of penetrating the atmosphere, accurate enough to strike a city, a High-altitude Electromagnetic Pulse (HEMP) attack does not require a reentry vehicle or accuracy.
- Iran’s intentions to exploit HEMP offensively may be reflected in their efforts to protect at least some of their critical infrastructures from HEMP attack.
- An official Iranian military textbook endorses nuclear HEMP attack against the United States, as well as deception measures to conceal nuclear weapons in violation of international agreements.
- Iran has demonstrated sophisticated cruise missiles and drones. Such delivery vehicles could easily be armed with Non-Nuclear EMP (NNEMP) warheads, might be able to achieve results similar to a nuclear HEMP attack in blacking-out power grids, though the NNEMP attack would probably take hours instead of seconds.
- The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has access to all of Iran’s weapons and is so fanatical that a scenario cannot be ruled out where the IRGC acts independently of the political government of Iran and its spiritual leaders.
United States: EMP Protection
Pry lays out political, strategic defense and system hardening solutions in a 2020 Mackenzie Institute article. On the political end, he has called for creation of a cabinet level secretary for EMP defense on other existential threats and endorsed the “whole of government solution” defined in the 2019 executive order on the EMP threat.
In the area of military strategy, he proposes using modern surveillance technology to determine if any foreign satellites now orbiting the earth are carrying nuclear weapons and positioning ships on all coasts prepared to intercept missiles launched from freighters, submarines, or other platforms that might make a nuclear EMP attack on the United States. And in the longer term, proposes implementing an advanced missile protection system comparable to the Reagan Administration’s “Star Wars” Strategic Defense Initiative.
On a more immediate level he proposed device hardening solutions that can be implemented now, including emp protection of military systems and critical national infrastructure. This includes protecting electric grids from nuclear EMP attack, which would help mitigate lesser threats, including man-made non-nuclear EMP, cyberattack, physical sabotage, and severe terrestrial weather, as well as EMP warfare.
He also calls for EMP hardening of the FirstNet emergency communications system, and training, evaluating, and “Red Teaming” efforts to protect the U.S. and in the event of an EMP attack to respond, and periodically report the results of these efforts to the Congress and hardening the more than 100 nuclear power reactors and their spent fuel storage. And Pry believes that hardening of this sort is both achievable and affordable. And the EPRI would likely agree.
An affordable solution
In a 2020 report on the EMP threat to the grid, the Electric Power Research Institute’s (EPRI) acknowledging that 1 megaton nuclear weapon detonated at 200 km (174 miles) above the Earth’s atmosphere, would damage relays, which trigger circuit breakers and switches in some substations, but identified relatively simple mitigation measures that can be taken to mitigate the threat to the electronics and control technologies to the Bulk Power System.
For a summary of the CISA approaches to managing EMP attacks see: Managing EMP.