Last week, the president issued an important executive order directing a whole-of-government approach to protecting critical infrastructure against the effects of an electromagnetic pulse weapon.

The potential threat posed by EMP attacks has been the subject of intense debate for decades. Congress established the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse Attack when it passed the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2001 in October 2000. The Commission issued two reports, in 2004 and 2008, which have largely gathered dust on a shelf.

Congress reestablished the commission in 2015; it issued one additional report in 2017. The commission’s 2004 report concluded that EMPs represent “one of a small number of threats that has the potential to hold our society seriously at risk and might result in defeat of our military forces.”

The National Security Strategy made passing reference to EMP threats. The president’s order last week expands on that by establishing policy that, in addition to providing early warning and diplomatic efforts to prevent an EMP attack, is intended to “protect against, respond to, and recover from the effects of an EMP through public and private engagement, planning, and investment.”

The National Security Adviser will “coordinate the development and implementation of executive branch actions to assess, prioritize, and manage the risks of EMPs” through the National Security Council staff, coordinating with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. The order lays out responsibilities for the secretaries of state, defense, commerce, and homeland security, as well as the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Things are supposed to happen quickly

In three months, the secretary of homeland security must identify the “national critical functions and associated priority critical infrastructure systems, networks, and assets, including space-based assets that, if disrupted, could reasonably result in catastrophic national or regional effects on public health or safety, economic security, or national security.” Within a year, she must identify the most vulnerable from that list.

Within the next six months, the secretary must also review the test data on the effects of EMP attack on these systems. Within six months of identifying any gaps in that test data, she must “develop an integrated cross-sector plan to address” those gaps.

This executive order is designed to reverse a last-minute Obama administration decision to address protection from naturally occurring  EMP but not those from nuclear attack. Peter Pry, who served as chief of staff to the EMP commission, called the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s regulations “grossly inadequate to protect the nation from natural EMP, from solar storms, and that will make it much more difficult and expensive to pass future standards to protect the nation from nuclear EMP attack.”

As one might expect, he wrote this past week that the new policy is “an excellent first step toward achieving national preparedness.”

How big is the threat?

Dr. John Les is a physicist who serves as Nuclear Branch Chief at the U.S. Army Nuclear and Combating Weapons of Mass Destruction Agency, or USANCA, at Fort Belvoir, Va. He teamed with Randolph Brady, Nuclear Effects Division Chief at the White Sands Test Center’s Survivability, Vulnerability and Assessment Directorate in New Mexico, to write about EMP effects testing for USANCA’s Combatting WMDs Journal in 2014. The two described the process succinctly.

…the initial or prompt high energy gamma rays that are emitted interact with the denser part of the lower atmosphere, creating electron currents, which in turn generate an electromagnetic pulse, or EMP. The energy in this pulse can in turn couple to electrical systems, which if not properly protected, can damage or cause a system to malfunction.

As the commission’s 2017 report stated, EMP attacks “give countries that have only a small number of nuclear weapons the ability to cause widespread, long-lasting damage to critical national infrastructures, to the United States itself as a viable country, and to the survival of a majority of its population.”

Some prominent nonproliferation experts deny that the pulse from a nuclear detonation would have much effect at all. In 2017, Dr. Jeffrey Lewis of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies wrote that he believes the government is exaggerating the effects of an EMP. He said “there is little data to support such alarmist claims” that an EMP would knock planes from the sky, destroy cars, and devastate electrical grids.

But Dr. Lewis is a political scientist, not a physicist, and physicists disagree. Shortly after Lewis published his article, Dr. William Graham, the physicist who served as the chairman of the EMP Commission, refuted Lewis’s dismissal. Graham said pointedly that Lewis’s conclusion “dismisses the consensus view of EMP experts who have advanced degrees in physics and electrical engineering along with several decades of experience in the field—with access to classified data throughout that time—and who have conducted EMP tests on a wide variety of electronic systems, beginning in 1963.”

Better safe than sorry

The back and forth reminds me of the debate over anthropogenic climate change. On one side are scientists who tell us it’s real and an existential threat, while on the other side are politicians who claim the threat is overhyped. In both cases, the discussion ought not to be about whether the threat is exaggerated or underestimated, but rather to what degree, if any, the nation is willing to commit resources to mitigate the risks.

Without going down the goal warming rabbit hole, adjusting to the threat of EMP attack is far less expensive—both in dollars and behavioral adjustments—than the proposed climate change policy remedies. Plus, the actions taken to harden critical infrastructure against EMP attack would have a deterrent effect of their own. If the U.S. were to protect our resources in a manner that would make them sufficiently resistant to EMP attack, and resilient enough to recover quickly from any damage, that greatly diminishes the incentive for a rouge nation like North Korea to launch such an attack.

Ensuring that we protect the nation’s critical infrastructure from both natural and nuclear-weapons-generated EMP is a vital part of the nation’s overall security strategy. Regardless of the size of the risk, it is a topic worthy of serious attention.

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Tom McCuin is a strategic communication consultant and retired Army Reserve Civil Affairs and Public Affairs officer whose career includes serving with the Malaysian Battle Group in Bosnia, two tours in Afghanistan, and three years in the Office of the Chief of Public Affairs in the Pentagon. When he’s not devouring political news, he enjoys sailboat racing and umpiring Little League games (except the ones his son plays in) in Alexandria, Va. Follow him on Twitter at @tommccuin