Addressing Electromagnetic Threats to U.S. Critical Infrastructure

The Congressionally-mandated EMP Commission Reports of 2004 and 2008 concluded that the electromagnetic pulse (EMP) threat to our nation is serious, that it is possible to mitigate the threat, but that little is being done to meet the challenge. Since then, our nation has further increased its reliance on technologies that depend upon the availability of electricity and digital electronics to manage and monitor the network of systems that deliver our basic goods and services. Our system for generating and distributing electricity is the core of this network. Failure here could cascade across other vital national infrastructures such as: telecommunications, transportation, banking, critical medical care, and water filtration and pumping. This could severely disrupt everything we take for granted, from food and water distribution to functioning sewer, medical, healthcare and banking systems.

Of special concern are both natural events and man-made threats that exploit weaknesses based on the very strengths of our modern digital society. For example, solar geomagnetic storms (geomagnetic disturbances or GMD) create immediate and intense current surges that may disrupt electrical and electronic systems, potentially on a continental scale. These storms are part of the sun’s normal cyclical activity, making the Earth’s recurrent exposure to them a certainty. Additionally, cyber-attacks, intentional electromagnetic interference (IEMI) weapons, and high-altitude electromagnetic pulse (HEMP) attacks produced by the detonation of a nuclear device above the Earth’s atmosphere could also cripple our critical national infrastructure and wreak havoc on and endanger the lives of tens of millions of Americans.

Numerous groups beyond the latest EMP Commission have pointed out for decades the grave dangers that these threats pose, particularly HEMP. In addition, both individual experts and senior leaders have called attention to the potentially catastrophic impact on the vital functions of society. However, little has been done to take the necessary steps to protect our infrastructures, and the vulnerabilities only continue to increase. As this dangerous condition grows, the devastation that would follow such an attack multiplies as well, thereby making electromagnetic (EM) attacks an increasingly attractive option for U.S. adversaries. This is compounded by the fact that nuclear proliferation has resulted in new capabilities for those who may be more inclined to exploit our vulnerabilities to EM attack.

Despite this growing danger, mitigating the likelihood and consequences of such an attack could be accomplished with relatively modest investments in infrastructure over the near to medium term, especially when compared to the scale of losses should we continue to do nothing.

Recognizing these trends, JINSA’s Gemunder Center for Defense and Strategy established a Task Force to examine the gap between increasing EM threats and increasing infrastructure and societal vulnerability, and to formulate a set of specific recommendations aimed at government and industry, that would begin to close this gap.

With regard to EMP attacks, which are man-made, we reaffirm the basic, three-component strategy: deterrence, active defense and improving the resilience of U.S. infrastructures and society. There is interdependence among these elements. It is not possible to deter all threats, so defenses and resilience are necessary; it is not possible to defend against all threats, so deterrence and resilience are necessary; and it is not possible to make infrastructures completely invulnerable, so deterrence and defense are necessary. None of these three strategy components is adequate by itself.

Each component needs to be improved and integrated as part of a comprehensive national strategy. Deterrence strategies specific to the above threats need to be more fully developed, and defenses need to be made more effective against a wider range of attack scenarios. And, despite some recent steps in the right direction, a great deal more needs to be done to reduce infrastructure vulnerabilities to both natural and man-made dangers. In this report, we address both deterrence and reducing infrastructure vulnerabilities. To this end, the recommendations contained in this report seek to reduce EM vulnerabilities in the nation’s critical infrastructures and society, in a manner that is implementable and not cost-prohibitive.

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