One of the most potentially devastating threats to American security is the threat of an electromagnetic pulse. Such an event could be life-changing and could ruin electronic devices in large sections of the country.
Thankfully, the Trump administration is alert to this threat and is taking steps to confront it. Last week, the White House 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 electromagnetic pulse.
An electromagnetic pulse is a burst of electromagnetic energy. The potentially most devastating pulse would be caused by a nuclear weapon detonated at a high altitude, though the sun can also generate bursts of energy just as damaging during solar storms.
An electromagnetic pulse or similar event would paralyze the country, since it would fry electric circuits and damage critical infrastructure. Our life now depends on a stable supply of electricity more 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 the electromagnetic pulse against the United States.
The president’s executive order assigns Cabinet secretaries with electromagnetic pulse-related responsibilities within their own purview. 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 the military doesn’t pay that 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 electromagnetic pulse attack.
The president’s executive order is a good first stepping stone.