Global Grid Meltdown No Longer the Domain of Techno-Thrillers

By Richard Sterk, Electronic Systems Analyst, Forecast International.

Early U. Army Cold War Testing of Electromagnetic Effects and Electromagnetic Pulses  (Source: US Army)
Early U. Army Cold War Testing of Electromagnetic Effects and Pulses (Source: US Army)

Electromagnetic pulses are no longer plot devices for techno-thriller disaster films.  The threat to the world grid from an EMP is very real.  This threat could be man-made, such as a weapon of mass destruction, or it could be a natural phenomenon such as a geomagnetic storm on the sun sending huge solar flares in the direction of the Earth.

Because a global shutdown of systems would constitute a serious disruption, efforts focusing on electromagnetic countermeasures will continue to be funded, with nuclear radiation hardening and EMP protection becoming mandatory for all new electronic systems.

Among current efforts, the U.S. Navy is developing advanced technology to identify sources of electromagnetic interference and nuclear electromagnetic pulses and eliminate EMI and EMP from Navy systems.  This project is primarily concerned with predicting future threats and addressing electromagnetic problems as they develop.

Electronics systems are extremely complex, and any form of interference, especially electromagnetic, can hamper the performance of communications and weapons systems.  The threat of an EMP induced by a nuclear detonation requires the continuous assessment of the vulnerability of command, control, and communications assets to EMP interference, and the development of ways to minimize such interference.  The U.S. Navy places particular emphasis on minimizing the susceptibility of sea-based assets to disruption by EMP.

Back in July 2008, Dr. William R. Graham, chairman of the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack, testified before the House Armed Services Committee.  Dr. Graham’s testimony was a follow-up to an executive report produced by the EMP Commission and delivered to Congress in 2004 providing an overview of the EMP threat to the U.S., its friends and allies, and its deployed forces.  The testimony led to the preparation of a new report evaluating the EMP threat and presenting recommendations for preparation for, monitoring of, and protection and recovery from such an attack.  Four other EMP Commission reports were delivered to Congress in 2004, all classified, describing the status of the EMP threat over the next 15 years as directed by statutory mandate, and discussing the posture of U.S. military forces with respect to EMP.

In his remarks to the committee, Dr. Graham said, “Recent disturbing events involving the command and control of nuclear weapons have demonstrated the problems that can occur when the nation does not pay adequate attention to nuclear weapon matters.  These problems reflect a shift in culture and attitudes regarding nuclear weapons and their role in today’s world.  Our increased vulnerability to EMP is also a result of U.S. reliance on increasingly sophisticated commercial technologies that have not been designed to withstand the stresses generated by an electromagnetic pulse attack.”

More recently, on June 18, 2013, U.S. Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) introduced the Secure High-voltage Infrastructure for Electricity from Lethal Damage (SHIELD) Act. This act amends the Federal Power Act to authorize the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), with or without notice, hearing, or report, to order emergency measures to protect the reliability of either the bulk-power system or the defense critical electric infrastructure whenever the president issues a written directive or determination identifying an imminent grid security threat.

Yes, information systems, power grids, electronic infrastructure, and weapons can technically be hardened for EMP protection, but the cost is high, especially given the infrastructure that sustains the standard of living in today’s world.  Needing to be protected against attack are all power grids, water supply pumping stations, data processing and storage systems, and public utilities.

R&D funding for the development of technology to defend against EMP attacks peaked in 2013 at $10.3 million and is now dropping as this technology shifts to implementation.  Looking ahead, from a low of $6.1 million in 2017, R&D funding will slowly increase as the next generation of EMP protection technology begins to be developed.

To view a PDF Dr. Graham’s full address before the HASC click here.

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