By John Ubaldi
Contributor, In Homeland Security
For decades, national security and intelligence officials, including former CIA Director James Woolsey, have warned that the United States was vulnerable to electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attacks that could cripple the nation’s power grid.
Tensions between the U.S. and North Korea have reached a fever pitch. North Korea continues to test its nuclear capability and threatens the U.S. with an EMP attack. But is the United States taking the North Korean threat seriously or is it even addressing it?
Who is Responsible for Protecting Our Nation’s Infrastructure?
To ward off an EMP attack if it occurs, we need to consider who is responsible for protecting our nation’s critical infrastructure. Recent hurricanes in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico have shown the vulnerability of the U.S.’s antiquated electrical systems.
In 2001, then-President George W. Bush announced a national energy plan that called for modernizing our crucial electrical infrastructure. But his plan died amid partisan warfare over the plan’s proposal to increase oil drilling in the United States.
National defense officials are supposedly tasked with protecting the critical infrastructure that affects the lives of millions of Americans. But they really don’t know what will happen or what can be done to prevent or safeguard the nation from an EMP attack.
One high-ranking, anonymous Department of Homeland Security official, told Fox News on Monday: “We recognize that an EMP event would have extremely dire consequences for the entire country, but where the challenge comes is in attempting to quantify those impacts. This is not something we have had a lot of real-world experience with.”
North Korean News Agencies Say that North Korea Is Capable of Striking the US with an EMP Attack
Earlier this month, state news agencies in North Korea explicitly warned that North Korea could hit the U.S. with an EMP attack. A hydrogen bomb detonated at a high altitude would create an EMP that potentially could wipe out critical elements of the U.S. electrical grid.
The higher a North Korean bomb’s detonation is in the atmosphere, the wider its area of destruction. Given that the 1963 nuclear test ban treaty prohibits high-altitude nuclear tests, there is little scientific data to accurately understand the true effects of a nuclear detonation on modern infrastructure.
US Previously Examined Nuclear Explosion in Space
Forbes magazine contributor Peter Kelly-Detwiler writes: “In 1962, at the height of the Cold War, the U.S. military exploded a nuclear weapon high above an atoll in the Pacific Ocean. Dubbed Operation Starfish, this exercise was part of a larger project to evaluate the impacts of nuclear explosions in space.
The missile, launched from Johnson Island, 900 miles from Hawaii, was armed with a 1.4 megaton warhead, programmed to explode at 240 miles above the earth. It detonated as expected. What was not entirely expected was the magnitude of the resulting electromagnetic pulse (EMP).
The impending nuclear device impacted the electric grid in Hawaii, blowing out streetlights, and resulting in telephone outages and radio blackouts.”
US Is Vulnerable to EMP Attacks Due to Its Dependence on Electronics
Kelly-Detwiler quotes Dr. William Graham, who was active in the follow-up to the nuclear test: “Since [the test], there have [sic] been an enormous increase in our dependency on electronics, computers, and microelectronics. An attack may never happen.
But the more vulnerable the U.S. is to such an attack, the more likely it is to be used against us. In the former days, we worried about Russia. Now we have to be concerned about North Korea and Iran. These [nuclear weapons] could be launched from a not-so-elaborate container ship. The rocket doesn’t have to be accurate. It just has to go up.”
One only has to see how dependent the U.S. is on its electronic devices. The hurricanes in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico showed how much we rely on our devices for communications and become stressed about keeping them charged during extended power outages.
Organizations Debate: Who Has the Responsibility for Protecting the US Electrical Grid from Attack?
The U.S. electrical grid serves more than 300 million and does not have one singular oversight body responsible for its safety. It’s no wonder that authorities note that the threat of an EMP attack has fallen between the cracks.
The utility companies believe that it’s not their responsibility to protect the power grid. They say it is a national security problem, with the federal government being solely responsible for its safety and security.
These same companies don’t want the added expense of upgrading their security. In addition, the regulatory aspect of improving the U.S. electrical grid system is an additional burden utility companies are unwilling to bear with its uncertain technical consequences.
Federal Agencies Are Confused Regarding Oversight
Individual utilities are ultimately responsible for grid security, but there is no standard mandate in place. Kelly-Detwiler notes, “The private nonprofit North American Energy Reliability Company (NERC) makes voluntary ‘best practices’ recommendations to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), while the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Department of Energy (DOE) counterpart on security and preparedness efforts.”
“According to the DHS, financing grid security — given that it doesn’t fall under the responsibility of one particular office — could have been done through slight rate increases, but efforts are typically bound by red tape,” Kelly-Detwiler adds.
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Fox News reporter Hollie McKay cites risk analyst and policy expert Dennis Santiago as saying that “any effort to harden the U.S. power grid — including the oldest and most interconnected portions of it in the eastern United States, which are especially exposed to disruption due to their age and design — have fallen short at the public utilities level because of ‘more pressing threats like physical attack security and cybersecurity.’”
The main focus of the federal government has been to protect the nation’s power grid system from a cyber attack more than an EMP style attack. Our adversaries know our vulnerabilities. We need to look not just at North Korea, but at the threats emanating from Iran, Russia and China, because these nations have assimilated an EMP attack into their military strategies.
The time has come for the United States to look at all threats and prepare for all of them, lest our nation reap the consequences of our inaction.