A recent TV documentary on the USS Gravely, one of the U.S. Navy’s new high-tech class of destroyers that cost $2 billion per ship, inadvertently revealed a potential vulnerability to electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attacks.
The Gravely’s Gatling gun — crucial to defend the ship from cruise missiles and other threats — uses electronically fired bullets to achieve its necessarily high rate of fire. Yet, the ship’s radar must be turned off while the gun is loaded, so that its electromagnetic field does not accidentally fire the Gatling’s electronic ammunition.
So, what would happen in an EMP attack? Would that crucial gun be rendered useless, or a danger to the ship or surrounding U.S. naval vessels?
This disturbing thought underscores an essential reality: Solving our nation’s vulnerability to EMPs — not just at sea, but across the country, for critical military as well as civilian infrastructure — must start by recognizing the gravity of our problem. And it certainly is grave.
A manmade or natural EMP event poses an existential threat that could black out life-sustaining critical infrastructures, damage and destroy civilian and military electronic systems across North America — or worldwide, as in the case of a solar superstorm such as the 1859 Carrington Event — and doom our electronic civilization. (For technical details see the Congressional EMP Commission reports at www.firstempcommission.org.)
Some analysts and experts who participated in a 2018 Air Force-led conference on the topic walked away concluding that the U.S. military is utterly unprepared for or equipped to prevent an EMP attack. The military is not training for an EMP attack or its aftermath, adequately if at all. Our troops would not have essential communications (although the military reportedly is now working on this) or any means of command and control. There are no military base-level emergency plans to provide food, fuel, shelter or other essential needs after an EMP event — whether an enemy’s attack or a natural occurrence — nor any plans to provide for America’s civilian population that would be left, literally, in the dark.
One big salient concern: 99 percent of the electricity needed to operate U.S. military bases comes from the civilian electric grid — which is unprotected from EMP.
At the same time, much if not most of our high-tech weaponry could be rendered inoperable, leaving the country largely defenseless. There is some cause for optimism, because a growing number of experts within the military, industry and other crucial sectors are beginning to recognize the threat we face. The question is whether their warnings and views can prevail or will continue to be ignored and dismissed.
If the military, scientific and other essential communities take heed and act, Trump’s executive order may well be the most consequential signed by any president in history.
“At some point, the U.S. military needs to realize that future wars will no longer be won by building the fastest planes, biggest aircraft carriers, and the largest tanks,” Jonathan Hollerman, a former U.S. Air Force survival instructor and EMP consultant, has correctly written (“Big News on the EMP Front,” May 9). “The new battlefield will take place in the electromagnetic spectrum. Wars will be won or lost in cyberspace and by electronic weaponry.”
Yet, for the moment, the U.S. continues to concentrate on building the biggest, most technologically cutting-edge weapons systems — heedless, it appears, to their potential vulnerability to relatively simple EMP measures.
Amazing that the U.S. military, which knows the most about EMP, has done so little to protect military forces and critical infrastructures. Aside from the aging U.S. nuclear deterrent — and, even with it, EMP protection may be inadequate — little or nothing has been done for U.S. military forces to survive and operate through an EMP attack.
Prior to President Trump’s executive order, farsighted Air Force Lt. Gen. Steven Kwast, then commander of the Air Education and Training Command, established the Air Force’s Electromagnetic Defense Task Force (EDTF). The task force conducted that 2018 conference for representatives of all the military services, NATO allies, relevant civilian departments and agencies of the U.S. government, as well as the private sector. The goal: to work on protecting the nation from EMP and the full spectrum of electromagnetic threats.
The EDTF met again at the end of April, and is now the apparent tip of the spear to implement the White House’s executive order.
I hope the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Congress and the White House will listen to Lt. Gen. Kwast, the EDTF team, and others who warn of the dangers we face, because time and our national and individual security are running out.
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