WASHINGTON – China, Russia and North Korea have electromagnetic-pulse, or EMP, weapons with the ability to cause mass casualties and catastrophic damage to the U.S. power grid, but defending against such an attack is not a defense priority, warned an expert who testified to Congress Thursday.
There’s a “clear and present danger to the U.S.” posed by an EMP weapon in the hands of an enemy nation, Peter Vincent Pry of EMPact America told the House Committee on Homeland Security’s Subcommittee on Cybersecurity, Infrastructure Protection, and Security Technologies.
Critics say the EMP threat has taken a financial backseat to the Obama administration’s climate-change and first-responder priorities.
“Given the amounts of money being spent in New York and Massachusetts on grid-hardening against severe weather, significant EMP protection can probably be accomplished now within their current budgets,” Pry reasoned.
“But the cost of EMP protection will increase significantly if they delay and attempt remediation later,” he warned.
National security priority
Ranking committee member Yvette Clarke, D-N.Y., shared concern with committee peer Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., that the EMP threat is a matter of national security that should be void of partisan politics and be addressed immediately.
“As I see it, the main risk from a terrorist attack succeeding against the electric power industry would be a widespread power outage that lasted for an extended period of time,” Clark said.
“We have known the potentially devastating effects of sufficiently intense electromagnetic pulse on the electronic systems and its risk to our national security. More troubling, our enemies know,” Franks said in Thursday’s testimony.
Franks cited a highly choreographed attack a year ago in which an unknown number of shooters with AK-47s knocked out 17 large transformers at the PG&E Metcalf Transmission Substation in California. He said PG&E avoided blackouts, but repairs to the facility took nearly four weeks.
Pry said an EMP attack presents an opportunity for a rogue nation to devastate the entire U.S. with a single nuclear weapon.
He testified that last April, during the nuclear crisis with North Korea over Kim Jong-Un’s threatened nuclear strikes against the U.S., Pyongyang apparently practiced an EMP attack with its KSM-3 satellite, which passed over the U.S. heartland and over the Washington, D.C.-New York City corridor.
He said that Iran, estimated to be within two months of nuclear weapons by the administration, has a “demonstrated capability to launch an EMP attack from a vessel at sea” and that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Navy commenced patrols off the U.S. East Coast three months ago.
China’s military doctrine openly describes an EMP attack as the ultimate asymmetric weapon, striking the foundation of the U.S. infrastructure. The doctrine says that a surprise EMP attack “could be regarded as the ‘Pearl Harbor Incident’ of the 21st century” if carried out against “the enemy’s crucial information systems.”
“Even a superpower such as the United States … cannot guarantee immunity.”
Pry said that the real danger lies in the fact that such an attack would be two-pronged. It would be an attack on both the cyber and power infrastructures, since computers control basically everything, including power systems. Civilization as it is known would come to a grinding halt in a nation where few have adequate survival skills.
Pry said it makes sense to consolidate America’s defense and climate priorities into one single-scope effort.
He emphasized the need for a timely, concerted, “two birds, one stone” multi-agency effort to harden the grid and said putting such a program off until later will only prove to be even more costly.
The DHS Science and Technology Directorate has co-sponsored with private utilities an exercise in a fast-turnaround transformer replacement project, Recovery Transformer Project, or RecX. The project is seeking to increase grid resiliency through more mobile and modular transformers. The applied research effort has developed a prototype EHV transformer that can quickly be deployed to a site via a series of large trucks and trailers, It subsequently can be rapidly installed, assembled and energized.
Pry said that current budget constraints severely impede rolling out RecX on a large-scale basis and that funding sources for such mitigation and response preparedness compete directly with building up “first response” preparation for natural disasters.
As WND reported in early April, a long-suppressed report prepared by the Department of Homeland Security for the Defense Department concludes that North Korea could deliver on its threats to destroy the U.S. with an EMP attack. The report remains blocked from release to the American public.
But a copy obtained by Pry from sources within DHS finds North Korea could use its Unha-3 space launch vehicle to deliver a nuclear warhead as a satellite over the South Pole to attack the U.S. from the south.
In an interview with WND, Pry said the revelations in the suppressed DHS report are only the latest indications of the North Korean EMP threat.
Pry said the prospect is the latest in a series of recent North Korean actions. He referred to the revelation of a Soviet-era, nuclear-capable, ground-to-air SA-2 missile that was discovered on a North Korean ship detained in the Panama Canal in July 2013 after leaving Cuba, only 90 miles from U.S. shores.
He and committee members say that if Americans want EMP to be a national defense priority, the best course of action is getting involved and writing their local congressmen.
Not ‘if’ but ‘when’
Policymakers testified that it is not a matter of if a natural or manmade EMP attack will occur but when. As late as April, a strong, X-class solar flare hit earth and triggered radio blackouts.
“Scientists tell us that it is likely that a powerful geomagnetic solar storm, capable of affecting parts of the U.S. and Canadian electric grid could occur. When it will occur, we are not quite sure,” Homeland Security ranking member Bennie G. Thompson said. “What we do know is that last year, 2013 was forecasted as the next period of elevated solar activity, known as ‘solar maximum’, and we are in a high activity part of the cyclical process,” he said.
WND reported last year that NASA estimates a direct hit to Earth from an enormous flares would have a catastrophic impact on the nation’s critical infrastructures over a wide geographical area.
In the first year alone, NASA estimates, such a disaster could cost just the U.S. upwards of $2 trillion. It also would take from four to 10 years to recover and affect the lives of some 160 million people, threatening starvation and death.
Some EMP experts say that such a catastrophic event could wipe out America’s urban centers, due to their total dependency on critical infrastructures for electricity, communications, food and water delivery, oil and gas, transportation, automated banking, financial institutions and even emergency services.
The experts say grocery stores, for example, would have their shelves cleared in a matter of hours due to the panic that would sweep the population.
Normally, grocery stores carry a maximum of three days of products before being restocked. However, restocking would come to a halt due to the inability of trucks to function, with fueling stations unable to pump the fuel needed to run the vehicles.
Automated control devices that regulate the flow of oil and natural gas through the hundreds of thousands of miles of pipelines that crisscross the nation would be tripped, causing geographically widespread secondary fires and explosions.