The Criticality of EMP Protection Guidelines

July 25, 2019
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President Donald Trump deserves America’s gratitude for his Executive Order on Coordinating National Resilience to Electromagnetic Pulses, signed on March 26, 2019.  This White House executive order, coordinated with all relevant departments and agencies of the U.S. Government,  culminates 20 years of effort by scientists and strategists to protect the national electric power grid and other life-sustaining critical national infrastructures—for example, communications, transportation, business and finance, food and water—from the existential threat of a natural or manmade electromagnetic pulse (EMP).

EMP threatens the foundations of modern electronic civilization that sustains the lives of millions:

  • Natural EMP from a solar superstorm could blackout electric grids and critical life-sustaining infrastructures worldwide.
  • Nuclear EMP attack from the high-altitude (30 kilometers or higher) detonation of a single nuclear weapon could blackout electric grids and critical life-sustaining infrastructures for much or all of the continental United States.
  • Non-nuclear EMP weapons (such as radiofrequency weapons), available to terrorists and criminals, can be used singly to pose localized threats, or in larger numbers to make a coordinated attack that could blackout the national U.S. electric power grid.
  • EMP is considered the ultimate “cyber weapon” in the military doctrines and plans of Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran, that describe a revolutionary new way of warfare combining EMP, cyber-attacks, and sabotage of electric grids and critical infrastructures to achieve victory.

The White House EMP Executive Order responds to the blue ribbon Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack, established by Congress in 2001, that has been warning that:

“A long-term outage owing to EMP could disable most critical supply chains, leaving the U.S. population living in conditions similar to centuries past, prior to the advent of electric power.  In the 1800s, the U.S. population was less than 60 million, and those people had many skills and assets necessary for survival without today’s infrastructure.  An extended blackout today could result in the death of a large fraction of the American people through the effects of societal collapse, disease, and starvation.  While national planning and preparation for such events could help mitigate the damage, few such actions are currently underway or even being contemplated.” (EMP Commission Executive Report, Assessing the Threat from EMP Attack, July 2017)

The EMP Commission, comprising the Free World’s foremost scientific and strategic experts on EMP, in their Executive Report Assessing the Threat from EMP Attack (July 2017) describes threats from combined-arms cyber warfare, a nuclear EMP attack, solar storms, cyber-attack and sabotage. 

Combined-arms cyber warfare, as described in the military doctrines of Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran, may use combinations of cyber-, sabotage-, and ultimately nuclear EMP-attack to impair the United States quickly and decisively by blacking-out large portions of its electric grid and other critical infrastructures.  Foreign adversaries may aptly consider nuclear EMP attack a weapon that can gravely damage the U.S. by striking at its technological Achilles Heel, without having to confront the U.S. military.  The synergism of such combined arms is described in the military doctrines of all these potential adversaries as the greatest revolution in military affairs in history—one which projects rendering obsolete many, if not all, traditional instruments of military power.

All of several threats must be considered:

  • Solar superstorms can generate natural EMP over remarkably wide areas.  Recurrence of the Carrington Event of 1859 is considered by many to be inevitable.  NASA estimates the likelihood of such an event to be 10 to 12 percent per decade, making it very likely that Earth will be affected by a solar superstorm within a matter of decades.  Such an event could blackout electric grids and other life-sustaining critical infrastructures, putting at risk the lives of many millions.
  • Nuclear EMP attack might be conducted with only a single nuclear weapon detonated at high altitude or with a few weapons above 30 kilometers.  These could be delivered by satellite, by a wide variety of long- and short-range missiles, including cruise and anti-ship missiles, by a jet doing a zoom-climb, or even by a high-altitude balloon.  Some modes of attack could be executed relatively anonymously, thereby impairing deterrence.
  • Russia, China, and North Korea now have the capability to conduct a nuclear EMP attack against the U.S.  All have practiced or described contingency plans to do so.  Terrorists or other less sophisticated actors also might mount a nuclear EMP attack if they have access to a suitable nuclear explosive.  For missile delivery, no re-entry system or accurate missile guidance would be necessary.
  • Cyber-attack, using computer viruses and related means, might be able to blackout much of the electric grid for extended intervals.  According to U.S. Cyber Command, Russia and China currently have such capability and it may be only a matter of time before other adversaries also gain a similar capability.
  • The U.S. electric grid could be sabotaged by damaging extra-high-voltage (EHV) transformers using rifles, explosives, or non-nuclear EMP or directed energy weapons.  Attacking less than a dozen key substations could result in protracted and widespread blackout, according to the public statements of a past Chairman of the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).  At least one substantive rehearsal of such an attack may have already taken place, at the Metcalf substation in the San Francisco Bay area.

In addition to providing the best and most comprehensive assessment of the EMP threat, the EMP Commission made many policy and technical recommendations for protecting electric grids and other critical infrastructures.  All the unclassified EMP Commission reports are available at www.firstempcommission.org

However, there exists an urgent need for a manual providing technical guidance on EMP protection options for emergency planners and engineers serving federal, state and local governments and the private sector, including electric and other utilities, businesses running and serving critical infrastructures, small businesses and individual citizens. 

Unfortunately, EMP protection guidelines utilized by the Department of Defense are generally classified or For Official Use Only (FOUO) and unavailable, or not easily available, to non-DOD managers and others responsible for protecting the critical civilian infrastructures.

Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Protection and Resilience Guidelines for Critical Infrastructure and Equipment (February 5, 2019) is an excellent manual to help educate and guide government, business, and citizens to do their part, however big or however small, in protecting modern electronic civilization from the existential threat that is EMP.  These EMP guidelines are from the Department of Homeland Security’s National Coordination Center for Communications (NCC), located within the National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center:

In summary Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Protection and Resilience Guidelines for Critical Infrastructure and Equipment describes four protection levels ranged from least costly and lowest priority protection (Level 1) to most costly and highest priority protection (Level 4):

Level 1 begins with low-cost methods and best practices to help protect critical infrastructure from severe damage. An important aspect of Level 1 protection is ensuring that personnel have backup power and the food, water, and other essential supplies needed to operate and maintain their mission-critical systems, given that normal services and supply chains are likely to be disrupted in some reasonable scenarios for a week (or longer). 

Level 2 guidelines are based on using EMP-capable filters and surge arresters on power cords, antenna lines, and data cables, as well as installing fiber optics and ferrites, where possible, to protect critical equipment. These will mitigate the majority of EMP equipment vulnerabilities when EMP facility shielding is not feasible and are expected to be the most cost-effective approach for hardening limited equipment in facilities. Levels 1 and 2 are for organizations where days or hours of mission interruptions can be tolerated and for which “cost to harden” is a critical factor. 

Level 3 guidelines are appropriate for organizations, facilities, and systems that cannot tolerate more than a few minutes of mission outage due to EMP, in order to effectively protect life, health, and security. The International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) EMP and IEMI protection standards (IEC SC 77C series, see Appendix F), serve as the foundation for planning and protecting critical infrastructures and equipment that are in this category. For EMP Protection Levels 3 (and 4), electromagnetically shielded racks and rooms are used to prevent electromagnetic (EM) fields and currents from reaching mission-critical equipment. At Level 3, shielding against high-frequency EMP should provide at least 30 dB of protection through 10 GHz (in other words, the EMP field strength should be attenuated by a factor of at least 97% by the shielding).

Level 4 guidelines are for organizations/missions/systems that cannot tolerate more than a few seconds of an outage and where immediate life and safety are at stake. U.S. Military EMP Standards supporting critical and time-urgent command, control, communications, computer, and intelligence (C4I) missions serve as the foundation for planning and protecting critical infrastructures and equipment in this category. Examples of missions where this apply are nuclear command and control and Presidential conferencing. However, this level of protection may also be appropriate for non-military related systems and missions, such as nuclear power plant controls, medical life support systems, and time-critical air traffic control functions. At Level 4, shielding against high-frequency EMP should provide at least 80 dB of protection through 10 GHz (in other words, the EMP field strength should be attenuated by a factor of at least 99.99% by the shielding).

The authors are superlatively qualified to provide guidance on EMP protection, and include:

Kevin Briggs (editor) is Chief of  Continuity Assessment and Resilience in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s National Coordination Center for Communications that long served as the DHS locus for expertise on EMP.  The NCC is descended from the National Communications System established by President Ronald Reagan in the White House to protect executive-level communications from EMP until President Barak Obama relocated this function from the White House to DHS.

Dr. George H. Baker III (lead author) served as senior scientific staff on the EMP Commission.  His professional background spans government, industry, and academia.  Dr. Baker directed the U.S. Defense Nuclear Agency’s Springfield Research Facility, directing research and assessments related to EMP hardened facilities, including organizing the first JCS Force Protection assessment teams.  Dr. Baker is Professor Emeritus, James Madison University, where he taught applied science and organized and directed JMU’s Institute for Infrastructure and Information Assurance.  He is CEO of BAYCOR, LLC, a consulting company devoted to preparedness for and protection against major electromagnetic threats to critical infrastructures, including nuclear EMP, solar storms, and RF weapons.

Dr. William A. Radasky served as senior scientific staff on the EMP Commission, and was awarded the Lord Kelvin Medal for High Power Electromagnetic Protection Standards for the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, and is one of the few people on planet Earth who has actually evaluated and recommended EMP protection for national and regional electric grids throughout the world.  Dr. Radasky has worked on high power electromagnetic applications for over 50 years, beginning his career at the Air Force Weapons Laboratory in 1968 where he evaluated the threat of high-altitude EMP to military systems and has worked extensively in performing assessments for critical infrastructures to the threats of HEMP, IEMI, and severe geomagnetic storms.  Dr. Radasky is founder, President, and Managing Engineer of Metatech Corporation.

We highly commend and these experts and recommend their guidelines on EMP protection.


Dr. William R. Graham was Chairman of the congressionally mandated Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack, served as White House Science Advisor to President Ronald Reagan, ran NASA, and was on the defense science team that discovered the EMP phenomenon after the 1962 STARFISH PRIME nuclear test. 

Ambassador R. James Woolsey was Director of Central Intelligence, a senior advisor on the EMP Commission, Ambassador to the Conventional Forces (CFE) in Europe Treaty, Delegate at Large to the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) and Nuclear and Space Arms Talks (NST), and Under Secretary of the Navy.  

Dr. Peter Vincent Pry was chief of staff of the EMP Commission and served on the staffs of the Strategic Posture Commission, the House Armed Services Committee, and the CIA.



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