A half-century ago, the newly established Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) passed its first regulation, addressing a health concern that had been killing people globally for centuries: asbestos. About the same time, we learned of another threat which, despite its capability to kill millions of Americans, took half a century to address. This was not done until March 26 when President Donald Trump signed an executive order, becoming the first among nine presidents knowledgeable about the threat to take it seriously. Predictably, the media gave it little coverage.
This threat is a double-edged sword: its destructive power can be unsheathed either by man or by Mother Nature. While man has yet to unsheathe it against his fellow man, Mother Nature has already done so – only failing fundamentally to disrupt life on Planet Earth due to timing. Occurring in 1859, its worldwide impact, while damaging, had nowhere near the devastating effect it would have today upon inhabitants of a globe dependent upon electrical grids nonexistent 160 years ago.
This threat is posed by an Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP). The first ever recorded EMP wave was the Carrington Event of 1859. It occurred following a flurry of solar storms creating massive flares emanating from the sun in various directions into outer-space. While several factors must occur for Earth to be hit, those factors aligned in 1859. But only because electricity use was in its infancy at the time (Thomas Edison would not even invent the incandescent light bulb until twenty years later), the Carrington Event did minimal damage. It did cause telegraph lines to melt and to start numerous fires all over the world.
We fail to appreciate that such storms occur with some regularity. A gigantic solar storm, ten times stronger than anything occurring in modern times, is believed to have struck Earth 2,600 years ago.
NASA, in fact, warns a catastrophic solar storm hitting Earth is long overdue. It is not a matter of “if,” but “when.” We have experienced some close calls. It is estimated one near-miss in 2012 could have caused trillions of dollars of damage in the US, taking out power grids, water supply, communication lines, and sewage disposal, potentially putting billions of lives at risk worldwide. Had that 2012 solar storm occurred a week earlier, Earth would have been directly in its path.
While EMP itself is not fatal to humans, it is its disruption of our grid infrastructure and all services dependent upon it that would generate human casualties. It is estimated up to 90 percent of Americans, nearly 300 million people, could perish within a year after such a hit.
It is this statistic that piques our enemies’ interest in developing the manmade capability to unsheathe the EMP sword. We have known since the 1970s the Soviets tested such a nuclear capability. We know North Korea probably acquired Super-EMP weapons technology from Russia and that North Korea and Iran share their technology.
In addition to their utility as weapons of mass disruption against life-sustaining critical infrastructures, Super-EMP weapons with a war-winning capability have been developed by China and Russia to defeat U.S. forces in theater and to conduct a disarming strike against the U.S. nuclear deterrent—potentially enabling them to win a nuclear war in one blow.
To maximize its impact, a nuclear EMP device requires detonation at a high altitude. The wave it generates strikes the ground, destroying all electronics within a radius dependent upon the altitude of detonation. Unlike a utility repairman able to get electricity back up and running following a blackout caused by a lightning storm, an EMP hit would knock out transformers, control systems, the huge generators running our grids, and damage electronics from personal computers to automobiles to nuclear power plants everywhere in North America.
It has been estimated that since many of the major transformers are foreign made, it could take a year or two to replace just one – and there are 2,000 EHV transformers in the U.S. making our electronic civilization possible.
Once an EMP nuclear weapon is acquired, no high-tech platform is needed to launch it. An innocent-looking merchant ship, hiding a SCUD missile launcher within, could easily position itself close enough off the US coast to maximize the weapon’s ground impact.
An EMP threat cloud lingered over the US during most the Cold War – a conflict that easily could have turned hot overnight. Yet nothing was done during that time to take measures on the ground to minimize such a weapon’s impact by shielding civilian electronics or taking other precautionary steps.
While the USSR’s collapse gave us a false sense of security the threat had gone away, it is even more threatening today as we have enemies willing to take risks the Soviets were unwilling to. Moreover, as modern microelectronics become smaller, faster, and more efficient, they become more vulnerable to EMP – with our increased dependency on them increasing societal vulnerability.
Among the few subject matter experts who really understand the EMP threat is Dr. Peter Vincent Pry. He served on the House Armed Services Committee staff and at the CIA. For decades, he attempted to gain the ear of a president willing to initiate precautionary action against an inevitable EMP strike. Soon after candidate Donald Trump entered the presidential race in the 2016 Iowa Republican caucuses, Pry gained that access.
Astonished to learn about our exposure, Trump promised as president he would address the issue. Last month he made good on that promise by signing the “Executive Order on Coordinating National Resilience to Electromagnetic Threats.”
Pry describes the executive order as “the most significant of any presidency.” For the first time, a masterplan, recognizing EMP as an existential threat to the US, brings all responsible government agencies together to improve our resilience to its effects. At long last, Pry proclaims, we have a president heeding numerous warnings ignored by his predecessors.
The most recent warning, issued in the 2017 “EMP Commission Chairman’s Report,” concluded “it is critical that the U.S. national leadership address the EMP threat as an immediate, existential issue, and give a high priority to assuring the necessary leadership is engaged and the necessary steps are taken to protect the country from EMP.”
Trump’s executive order does exactly that, mandating a fast timeline to make up for a half-century lost due to neglect.
It is refreshing to know as Trump’s critics continue playing politics to undermine his authority, we have a president in office who, grasping his responsibility to protect us even though they do not, rises above it to take precautionary action. As Trump spotlights an existential threat too long ignored, the continuing disregard of his critics spotlights their own ignorance by doing so.