President Donald Trump issued an executive order on Tuesday directing the federal government to prepare a coordinated response plan in the event of an electromagnetic pulse attack (EMP). The order described the enormous damage such an attack could cause and noted the U.S. government currently lacks a coherent plan of action for responding to one.
The minimal media coverage given to Trump’s order was bizarrely contemptuous, as though he had just issued an order to prepare defenses against flying saucers or flesh-eating zombies. The Washington Post headline was “Trump issued an executive order to prepare for an EMP attack. What is it, and should you worry?”
The Post answered its own question with the subhead, “Nah. But the U.S. should get ready for a very similar threat – from the sun.”
Other publications dismissed the EMP threat as “mythical” or mere science fiction, even though the phenomenon of electromagnetic energy from a nuclear detonation interfering with electronics and power transmission systems is far better established than “climate change,” which many of these same publications vehemently insist is not mythical at all and must be fought immediately at unlimited cost in money and human lives.
Perhaps some of those criticizing Trump for his executive order believe it will pave the way for recommendations as deranged and extreme as those frequently demanded for climate change. Trump’s order is nothing like the “Green New Deal,” however. It simply instructs federal agencies to prepare evaluations and submit reports by certain fixed deadlines. Telling federal bureaucrats to file some reports is hardly a stunning break with executive precedent.
It should be noted that some of the publications hammering Trump for issuing his EMP executive order found it quite charming when the Obama administration really did prepare response plans for flesh-eating zombie attacks, using multiple federal agencies. This tomfoolery was justified on the grounds that it made training exercises fun and captured the imagination of the public.
Anti-Trump animus obviously drives much of the derogatory coverage, along with heavy media bias against the people and organizations who have been warning about EMP weapons for years. It pleases critics to imagine the EMP threat is a mindless obsession of paranoids and doomsday preppers, even though the technology to generate electromagnetic pulses definitely exists and their effect on delicate electronic systems would be catastrophic. The threat is “mythical” in the same sense that a massive Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor would have been mythical in November 1941, or terrorists flying hijacked planes into skyscrapers would have mythical in August 2001.
Comparing a targeted EMP strike to solar flares as the Washington Post does is dangerously absurd, but Trump’s executive order does mention natural disruptions in its very first paragraph, so environmental dangers are not overlooked. The order defines electromagnetic pulses as follows:
“Electromagnetic pulse” is a burst of electromagnetic energy. EMPs have the potential to negatively affect technology systems on Earth and in space. A high-altitude EMP (HEMP) is a type of human-made EMP that occurs when a nuclear device is detonated at approximately 40 kilometers or more above the surface of Earth. A geomagnetic disturbance (GMD) is a type of natural EMP driven by a temporary disturbance of Earth’s magnetic field resulting from interactions with solar eruptions. Both HEMPs and GMDs can affect large geographic areas.
The point of the order is that we currently lack a coordinated strategy to deal with any significant disruption of the sensitive equipment our society is almost entirely reliant upon. That equipment has only existed for a few decades, so history offers little precedent for how to deal with a deliberate attack, and no reason to believe natural forces cannot cause disruption on a catastrophic scale.
It is particularly strange to see anyone mocking the White House for taking the matter seriously when Venezuela is currently showing the world a horrifying example of what happens to crowded cities when the lights go out. As a matter of fact, the Venezuelan dictatorship has made laughable attempts at blaming the nationwide blackouts on an EMP attack perpetrated by dissidents with the aid of the U.S. government. A real EMP strike would be orders of magnitude worse than the hardships imposed on Venezuela by socialism.
Trump’s executive order was not extravagant. The actions directed by the White House boil down to asking agency heads to seriously estimate the consequences of EMP attacks on various scales and prepare cogent response plans. Maintaining communications between military units and emergency responders in the event of an EMP was given high priority. Such considerations are essentially why the primordial Internet was created by the Defense Department decades ago. Ironically, our dependence on the Internet makes us more vulnerable to electromagnetic attack than ever.
Concern about attacks on America’s communications and energy infrastructure are not new. Analysts inside and outside the government have been warning about the vulnerability of the power grid to everything from cyber-espionage to brute-force vandalism for many years. Criticizing the Trump administration for getting serious about those vulnerabilities, simply because it dares to imagine the worst-case scenario, is highly irresponsible.
Among those applauding President Trump’s executive order was Dr. Peter Vincent Pry, who noted in The Hill on Thursday that the Congressional EMP Commission has been advising better preparedness for almost 20 years.
Pry, formerly chief of staff for that commission, cited strong bipartisan support for getting serious about EMP defense:
Republican leaders on EMP preparedness have included Sens. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Ted Cruz of Texas, Reps. Doug Lamborn of Colorado and Michael McCaul of Texas, former Reps. Roscoe Bartlett of Maryland and Curt Weldon of Pennsylvania, and Texas state Sen. Bob Hall.
Democratic leaders have included former Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia, Sen. Edward Markey of Massachusetts, Reps. Yvette Clarke of New York and Benny Thompson of Mississippi, former Rep. Henry Waxman of California, and former state Reps. Andrea Boland of Maine, Joan Ginal of Colorado and Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda of Florida.
Aside from President Trump himself, the greatest credit for the EMP Executive Order goes to William R. Graham, chairman of the Congressional EMP Commission since 2001 and former White House science adviser to President Reagan, who ran NASA and was on the defense science team that discovered the EMP phenomenon during the Starfish Prime nuclear test in 1962. Dr. Graham has spent a professional lifetime trying to protect civilization from the existential threat that is EMP.
Pry framed EMP weapons as a subset of cyber warfare, which no one in the right minds would dismiss as a mythical or exaggerated threat, even though large-scale adversary-directed computer warfare hasn’t happened yet either.
As bad as some of the hacks have been over the past few decades, many of them directed by hostile state actors, the world has yet to see anything close to what will happen if a major military power unleashes an all-out cyber warfare campaign against an advanced industrial economy like the United States or Europe. Pry noted the worst-case scenarios for cyber attacks on American infrastructure envision millions of deaths.
One problem with discussing EMP attacks is that worst-case scenarios, like a nuclear device detonated at high altitude above the American heartland, get all the attention. It is easy to denigrate such scenarios as unthinkable, although we obviously have long-standing detailed plans to deal with even more unthinkable nuclear and biological attacks, and the EMP option would seem far more realistic to an assailant with very limited ability to deliver nuclear warheads over intercontinental distances.
Doomsday nationwide EMP attacks are not the only threat to consider, however. We like to think of the Internet as a vast amorphous blob of pulsing data, at once everywhere and nowhere, but in truth it has specific weak spots and hubs that could be hit with small weapons, perhaps well short of nuclear bombs. The damage from a “small” EMP attack on Wall Street or the tech hubs of the West Coast would run into trillions of dollars and could throw the entire U.S. economy into chaos. A glance at the latest grim urban traffic report suggests a small-scale EMP attack that affects just a portion of a single city could inflict thousands of casualties.
The Washington Times speculated on Wednesday that Trump’s executive order could be a step toward overcoming the resistance of private sector companies to spend money on hardening electric grids and computer networks against both natural disasters and sabotage.
The Washington Times also cited a congressional report from January that found hostile nations like China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea are working on developing EMP weapons and have incorporated such weapons into their military doctrines. The U.S. media has been hysterical about Russian espionage and information warfare for years but suddenly thinks President Trump is going overboard by taking the ultimate cyber threat seriously.