November 20, 2018
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Anyone who’s done more than glance at this site will know that we take the threat of an EMP attack very seriously. It deserves it. Unless there’s a major nuclear war, or an extinction-level event on the magnitude of a giant asteroid hitting the planet or the Yellowstone supervolcano finally blowing its top, a properly executed EMP would inflict more damage on the USA than anything else you could imagine.

So, considering how destructive an EMP attack would be, you would expect the government to be working hard to protect us against one. After all, if there’s a legitimate reason for governments to exist in the first place, this is it – protecting the American people from a threat that could kill most of us and change the survivors’ way of life forever. If governments at all levels, from your town selectmen up to the White House, have time to mess around with gender-free restrooms and arranging welfare payments for illegal aliens, surely that means they’re well on top of the important stuff like protecting us from an EMP?

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No. Dead wrong. The fact is that, despite the massive damage an EMP attack would inflict on the USA, our government has done almost nothing to protect us against it. They haven’t invested the money in hardening key infrastructure or preparing to recover from an attack. They haven’t put anyone in charge of making those preparations. They haven’t even told the American people the full extent of the threat.

All Talk, No Action

In fact, all that’s really happened is that, round about the turn of the century, Congress set up the snappily named Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse Attack, usually known as the EMP Commission. Nothing much happened and the commission basically faded away, unlike the threat, but in November 2015 the National Defense Authorization Act re-established the EMP Commission and funded it through to June 2017.

It’s fair to say that the government hasn’t thrown its full weight behind the EMP Commission. In fact although there were enough funds to keep it running past June 2017, the DoD withdraw most of its support when the original funding date passed, leaving the Commission to do the best it could on its own. Luckily the Commission had some dedicated people on board, including experts on intelligence, communications, electronics and nuclear weapons. They include a retired USAF general, several ex-professors from national nuclear laboratories and a former director of the CIA; this isn’t just a handful of political talking heads.

How Bad Is It Anyway?

Last July the EMP Commission released a report on the USA’s preparedness for EMP attack, and it makes grim reading. The government has been warned for years about the potential consequences of an EMP; but there’s been almost no action on any of the recommendations. Some of the worst problems identified were:

  • EMP Commission Chief of Staff Issues Dire Warning to AmericaThere has been no effort to expand backup electricity sources for the national grid. The technology exists to build large battery backups that can keep essential services running until repairs can begin – in fact these backups are actually being installed in Australia right now. They’re not being installed in the USA, even though the manufacturer is Tesla, a US company. Battery backups can’t replace power stations even for a short time, but they can provide enough power to assist repair workers.
  • If there are repair workers, of course. The Commission found that there are very few people with the skills to repair or rebuild the power grid after an EMP. There are still homes in Puerto Rico without power almost a year after Hurricane Maria hit, and the main reason for that is a shortage of technicians who can repair the damage. If we struggle to repair downed power lines and water-damaged transformers on one territory, how will we cope when the entire grid has been damaged by EMP? Unless more technicians are trained in a hurry the lights could be off for a very long time.
  • We have almost no ability to “black start” the grid – get it up and running again after a total blackout. Most procedures for repairing and restarting damaged sections of the grid rely on having power available from the rest of it. As it stands, even if sections of the grid can be repaired quickly we might not be able to get them running again.
  • EMP Commission Chief of Staff Issues Dire Warning to AmericaThere’s been almost no attempt made to harden power stations, transformers or even power cables against EMP. The North American power grid isn’t in great shape. It’s at risk from natural events like a coronal mass ejection; in 1989 a fairly small CME knocked out power across the whole of Quebec and parts of New Jersey. In its current state, the grid would be devastated by an EMP attack.
  • Nobody has overall responsibility for EMP defense. That means even if government departments and agencies to start preparing for an attack, their work won’t be coordinated. That wastes taxpayers’ money, which is bad enough – but it also risks leaving gaps in preparedness that could undermine the whole thing. The Commission has asked the government to appoint someone to coordinate planning for EMP defense. It hasn’t happened.
  • The DoD is withholding information from the public. Commissioner Peter Pry says seven key reports on EMP, containing information that would help the American people understand and prepare to survive the threat, are still classified; Pry blames holdovers from the Obama administration for the failure to publish this vital data.

So Now What?

It’s not all bad news, of course. The EMP Commission has praised President Trump’s Executive Order 13800, aimed at protecting the electrical grid and other networks against cyber attack. Commissioner Pry is urging the administration to include EMP as one of the threats covered by the EO, as it’s on the same spectrum as cyber warfare – an attack on infrastructure, not directly against the American people.

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However, even if the government finally starts to listen to advice and steps up their preparations for an EMP attack, it’s going to be years before they accomplish anything. Upgrading the grid to a pint where it can be quickly reactivated after an EMP could take 15 years or more. Hardening computer networks would be quicker, but computers aren’t a lot of use without power to run them. There are hostile countries that could attack us with EMP now, and there will be a lot more by the time the government gets anything done – even if it starts now.

The ugly truth is that it’s going to be a long time, if ever, before our politicians do anything useful to protect us against electromagnetic pulse weapons. If you want to survive an EMP event, you’re going to have to take action yourself. That means being ready to do without electronics – and electricity itself – as much as possible, and ensuring you have a robust power supply and EMP protection for the gadgets you do need. It would be a lot better if the government invested in a grid and generation system robust enough to withstand an EMP, or at least be quickly restarted after one. But they’re not doing that, so as usual we’re on our own.

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