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Emerging threats: widespread and long-lasting power outages due to a nation-state EMP attack

The US Homeland Security Committee’s Oversight and Management Efficiency Subcommittee has held a hearing which, amongst other things, looked at the threats to critical infrastructure from an electromagnetic pulse attack (EMP) attack by North Korea.

Entitled ‘Empty Threat Or Serious Danger: Assessing North Korea’s Risk To The Homeland’ the session, presented by Dr. Peter Vincent Pry, Chief of Staff, Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States From Electromagnetic Pulse Attack, concluded that there is a real and significant threat that a single successful EMP attack could cause nation-wide and long lasting power outages which would have extremely severe impacts on other elements of critical infrastructure, businesses and communities across the country.

Key points from the hearing session include:

  • During the Cold War, major efforts were undertaken by the Department of Defense to assure that the US national command authority and US strategic forces could survive and operate after an EMP attack. However, no major efforts were then thought necessary to protect critical national infrastructures, relying on nuclear deterrence to protect them. With the development of small nuclear arsenals and long-range missiles by new, radical US adversaries, beginning with North Korea, the threat of a nuclear EMP attack against the US becomes one of the few ways that such a country could inflict devastating damage to the United States. It is critical, therefore, that the US national leadership address the EMP threat as a critical and existential issue, and give a high priority to assuring the leadership is engaged and the necessary steps are taken to protect the country from EMP.
  • After massive intelligence failures grossly underestimating North Korea’s long-range missile capabilities, number of nuclear weapons, warhead miniaturization, and proximity to an H-Bomb, the biggest North Korean threat to the US remains unacknowledged—nuclear EMP attack.
  • Primitive and ‘Super-EMP’ nuclear weapons are both EMP threats. The EMP Commission finds that even primitive, low-yield nuclear weapons are such a significant EMP threat that rogue states, like North Korea, or terrorists may well prefer using a nuclear weapon for EMP attack, instead of destroying a city.
  • North Korea could make an EMP attack against the United States by launching a short-range missile off a freighter or submarine or by lofting a warhead to 30km burst height by balloon. While such lower-altitude EMP attacks would not cover the whole US mainland, as would an attack at higher-altitude (300km), even a balloon-lofted warhead detonated at 30 km altitude could blackout the Eastern Electric Power Grid that supports most of the population and generates 75 percent of US electricity.
  • An EMP attack might be made by a North Korean satellite, right now. A Super-EMP weapon could be relatively small and lightweight, and could fit inside North Korea’s Kwangmyongsong-3 (KMS-3) and Kwangmyongsong-4 (KMS-4) satellites. These two satellites presently orbit over the United States, and over every other nation on Earth-demonstrating, or posing, a potential EMP threat against the entire world. North Korea’s KMS-3 and KMS-4 satellites were launched to the south on polar trajectories and passed over the United States on their first orbit. Pyongyang launched KMS-4 on February 7, 2017, shortly after its fourth illegal nuclear test on January 6, that began the present protracted nuclear crisis with North Korea. The south polar trajectory of KMS-3 and KMS-4 evades US Ballistic Missile Early Warning Radars and National Missile Defenses, resembling a Russian secret weapon developed during the Cold War, called the Fractional Orbital Bombardment System (FOBS) that would have used a nuclear-armed satellite to make a surprise EMP attack on the United States.
  • The North Korean missile test on April 29, 2017, which apparently detonated at an altitude of 72km, the optimum height-of-burst for EMP attack by a 10 KT warhead, would create a potentially damaging EMP field spanning, not the academic’s miscalculated 20km radius, but to about 930km radius. Therefore, even for a low-yield 10-20 kiloton weapon, the EMP field should be considered dangerous for unprotected US systems.
  • The empirical basis for the threat of an EMP attack to electric grids and other critical infrastructures is far deeper and broader than the data for cyber-attacks or sabotage. The notion that a cyber-attack or sabotage can plunge the US into a protracted blackout--while very real threats that warrant deep concern--are far more theoretical constructs than EMP attack. We know for certain that EMP will cause widespread damage of electronics and protracted blackout of unprotected electric grids and other critical infrastructures.
  • When assessing the potential vulnerability of … civilian critical infrastructures to EMP, it is necessary to be mindful of the complex interdependencies of these highly-networked systems, because EMP upset and damage of a very small fraction of the total system can cause total system failure. Real world failures of electric grids from various causes indicate that a nuclear EMP attack would have catastrophic consequences. Significant and highly disruptive blackouts have been caused by single-point failures cascading into system-wide failures, originating from damage comprising far less than one percent of the total system.

Read the full testimony (PDF).

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