—John A. Tirpak
Employees at the US Embassy in Havana, Cuba, shown here on March 22, 2016, and the US embassy in China were diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries after being exposed to focused electromagnetic waves over several months. State Department photo.
This story was updated on Aug. 21, 2019 at 6:10 p.m. to include a comment from the State Department.
Everyday Americans aren’t worried enough about the threat of a massive electromagnetic attack, according to a new, 130-page Air University report on electromagnetic spectrum vulnerabilities.
During the Cold War, the public was aware of the threat of nuclear attack and took it seriously, participants in the Electromagnetic Task Force’s 2019 study said. They concluded the US should mount a similar national campaign encouraging individuals, the military, and industry to adopt electromagnetic protection and resilience plans, just as citizens built bomb shelters during the Cold War.
An electromagnetic pulse attack is essentially a surge of energy, caused by a nuclear detonation or a solar storm, that could overload electronics and cause them to fail. While national leaders and industry are more aware of the potential impacts, the Air University study said, an effort akin to the “Smokey Bear” wildfire-prevention initiative could better alert the public.
The second annual study, undertaken by hundreds of scholars, industry experts, and military officers earlier this year, argued that the proliferation of “efficient but delicate” computers, networks, and other electronic infrastructure leaves the US particularly vulnerable to electromagnetic attacks on a grand scale.
The idea that the US could suffer from such an attack isn’t new, and experts differ on its potential consequences. In March, President Donald Trump signed an executive order calling for a whole-of-government approach to understanding and protecting against EMP incidents.
In response to a Joint Chiefs of Staff inquiry into where the Pentagon’s blind spots to such attacks lie and how to counter potential incidents, the AU report’s authors said new complications are popping up at a “shocking pace.” China is one particular country to watch in EMS systems development, study participants said.
The biggest problem, according to the task force: there’s no national or military plan to recover from and retaliate against an electromagnetic pulse attack. The study recommended that the Department of Homeland Security and US Northern Command should create that plan together and regularly practice it.
Study participants looked to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and other natural disasters and said social norms would break down in “as little as 72 hours” following an electromagnetic attack. National planners need to study “the psychology of human desperation, starvation, and living without the rule of law” in building response and recovery blueprints, and be prepared to provide resources in the event of a long-term blackout, the report continued.
Four doctoral candidates opined in the Washington Post earlier this year that an EMP “could lead to deaths by shutting down medical, transportation, communication, banking, finance, food and water systems”—effects like those of Hurricane Katrina, but on a national scale.
But those researchers said the potential impact of an EMP attack may be overstated.
“There’s little cause for concern about an EMP attack in isolation, because a nuclear EMP attack would be just that: a nuclear attack,” the four said in a Post op-ed. “Such brazen aggression would prompt an overwhelming—and most likely nuclear—American response. Such deterrence makes it unlikely a nuclear EMP attack would happen in the first place.”
High-powered microwave weapons and space weather events pose a more likely threat than EMPs, the four writers argued.
“Working to better understand the hazards to US infrastructure may be a good investment to evaluate if greater protection against EMPs is worth pursuing,” the op-ed writers said.
The Air Force pointed to the microwave problem as well. The AU report recalled that employees at the US embassies in China and Cuba were “diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries typically associated with some sort of shock or blow to the head,” following exposure to focused electromagnetic waves over several months within the past few years.
“The internal temperature of the victim’s brains had been raised by an external electromagnetic source, triggering a response similar to concussive industries,” the report stated.
A State Department spokesperson told Air Force Magazine Aug. 19 that the government is still investigating the source and cause of those symptoms.
HPM weapons development—which the Air Force is also pursuing—signals a push into the gray area of nontraditional warfare where bad actors can invisibly target victims, according to the report. The success of the embassy attacks “will likely inspire other able actors to use similar means to influence targets,” the AU report noted.
The Air Force report argued that until recently, the Defense Department and its industrial suppliers grossly misunderstood electromagnetic spectrum threats and who should be in charge of defending against them. Leaders should have a common understanding of what these attacks can do and work to adapt future technologies to those possibilities, the report said.
The development of 5G wireless networks, for example, offers an opportunity to make that new national infrastructure resilient from the start, the Air Force report said. 5G is more susceptible to power disruptions than 4G networks, the report’s authors argued, adding that they see 5G as less resilient than previous versions. That view is not shared across the Defense Department, which said in May that a 5G network “would be more resilient and less susceptible to attacks,” without specifying what kind.
However, the task force also noted that it might be a good idea to hang on to earlier generations of technology—4G networks and compatible systems, inertial navigation systems, even telephone land lines—as backups, should primary electronics be taken out.
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