There was apparent good news this week.
Peter Pry, executive director of the Task Force on National and Homeland Security and also director of the US Nuclear Strategy Forum – both congressional advisory boards – has been quoted this week as warning that the civilian world is not ready for an EMP attack, and describes the effects as catastrophic.
In case you’re unfamiliar with EMP, please see our article that explains EMP to understand how and why it is such a chilling threat to our modern world.
Anyway, back to Mr Pry. Yes, we agree with both his statements. So, what is the problem?
Well, after these comments, he then goes a bit off-target. He is quoted as saying :
The problem is not the technology. We know how to protect against it. It’s not the money, it doesn’t cost that much. The problem is the politics. It always seems to be the politics that gets in the way.
If you do a smart plan – the Congressional EMP Commission estimated that you could protect the whole country for about $2 billion.
Sounds very good, doesn’t it. But, let’s actually think carefully about his two claims and see if they stand up to even some simplistic investigation.
1. Protecting Against EMP Effects
First, let’s consider his claim that we know how to protect against EMP effects.
Well, that is sort of true, but it is true in the same manner, perhaps, that we ‘know’ how to protect against teenage pregnancies. But, just as the ‘solutions’ to the problem of teenage pregnancies, while perfect in theory, have always colossally collapsed in reality and have proven to be completely impractical, so too do the ‘solutions’ to EMP effects have little application in the real world that the rest of us wish to live in.
Essentially, there are five possible solutions to EMP. You choose the one you wish to adopt.
1. Place every piece of at-risk electronics inside Faraday cages. A Faraday cage is basically a metal box (ideally of iron or steel so as to protect against both electrical and magnetic energy), and electromagnetic energy goes around the box rather than through the box. This therefore protects the items inside the box.
But, you can’t have wires going in or out of the Faraday cage. If you did, then the wires provide pathways for the EMP effects to enter into the cage. So, no external antennas (and internal antennas will be blocked by the cage) which effectively makes all radio type gear useless. Plus, yes, where will power come from to power the devices inside the cages? And so on and so on.
Faraday cages can indeed fairly protect some types of electronics, but not everything. Have a look around your home and your office. Everything from your phones (wired or wireless) to your calculator to your digital clock and watch, to your oven and stove top and microwave, to the thermostat that controls your heating – yes, pretty much everything – is at risk from EMP effects. How much of all of this can you put in Faraday cages?
2. The next ‘solution’ is to ‘harden’ your electronics to make them less vulnerable to EMP effects. Hardening will reduce the certainty that your electronics will get fried by EMPs, but does not zero it out. Think of it a bit like making your watch water-resistant, or your jacket ‘showerproof’.
Hardening is essentially something that is done in the design and construction of something; it is not something that can be subsequently added on. Hardening requires adding various types of filters and chokes, separating out components, and using special components that have been designed to be more robust when confronted with EMF induced voltage spikes (ie from an EMP).
Hardened equipment is unavoidably bulker and heavier than regular equipment, and so is seldom ever encountered in consumer grade electronics, which place a premium on being as small and compact as possible.
3. You could replace all your high-tech gear with low tech gear. Instead of fancy digital phones, you could use old-fashioned rotary dial phones – well, maybe you could, if your phone exchange still supports rotary dialing (and if the phone exchange itself will survive the EMP event!). You could replace your new transistorized digital radio with an old vacuum tube powered radio (which will be much more dependent on mains power than your low current low voltage digital radio), and again, what use is a radio if there are no surviving radio stations.
We’re not quite sure what you could replace your iPad or computer with, and what point would there be, when the entire internet will collapse.
4. You could adapt instead to a life with zero technology. But in that case, is the ‘cure’ worse than the problem? Imagine a life with no electricity, no cable, no internet. Oh yes, also without water or sewer, too. This isn’t really a solution at all, is it.
5. The fifth approach is to keep a spare set of everything essential you might need in a future ‘grid down’ scenario. But if you do this, you need to store them inside Faraday cages. Just leaving them switched off is not sufficient – the on/off switch in anything merely controls the flow of electrical power, it doesn’t physically disconnect circuitry from itself and from potential antennas that would collect and feed/funnel the EMP energy into the unit.
There is another problem with this strategy. While it is great good sense to keep spares of everything essential, it also begs the question – how many spares do you keep? What happens if an EMP occurs, and you smile to yourself, break out your spares, and are back to normal functioning (albeit without any external support resources such as electricity or the internet), but then, a couple of hours later, a second EMP event occurs. Do you have a third set of everything also kept as spares for the spares? A fourth set for another layer of spares?
It seems reasonable to assume that if a foreign nation chooses to attack us with an EMP, they would have the resources, sense and willpower to do the equivalent of a double-flush – first one EMP to do as much damage as possible, then a second event some hours later to destroy all the reserve equipment now being pressed into service.
US DoD doctrine says to expect multiple EMP attacks, not just one (see the Field Manual, referenced below).
No Man is an Island
One more thought on this point before moving on to the second fallacy in Mr Pry’s strange statement. Even if you reduce your own vulnerability to EMP-effects, what good does that do you?
Maybe your own electronics are intact, but if the power grid is down, you have no electricity to power them. Maybe your car’s several dozen computers also successfully made it through the EMP event, but if the gas pumps at the gas station don’t work – both due to no electricity and also due to their own electronics being fried – how much use is your car to you? And how would you pay for the gas, even if you could get it? The banking system will be down, card readers won’t work, and you probably only have a day or two of cash in your pocket.
Oh yes, the roads will probably be blocked anyway, with less fortunate cars just stalling in the middle of the lanes they were in at the time. Think of the chaos from a sudden winter snow-storm, then multiply it, to get an idea for how driveable the roads will be.
The EMP risk is not just a risk to ourselves personally, it is a risk to all the infrastructure about us that we rely upon in our lives, but which we can’t control.
2. A $2 Billion Cost?
Mr Pry says it would cost $2 billion to protect the whole country against EMP effects. Now, to me, and probably to you too, $2 billion is an unthinkable amount of money, and we could do many enormous things with such a huge sum.
But, to the government, $2 billion is nothing. It represents little more than $6 per person in the country. The government’s total budget for 2013 was $3.5 trillion, 1700 times more than $2 billion. Sure, this suggests that the $2 billion is affordable, but it is also negligible. We spent $8.2 billion on the Army Corps of Civil Engineers, $18 billion on NASA, $35 billion on the Energy Department, and $673 billion on defense.
Two specific examples. California is currently planning to spend almost $100 billion on a fast train service between San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Sacramento. A new air traffic control system for the country is projected to cost somewhere between $40 billion and $120 billion (no-one seems quite sure exactly how much).
So tell me, if you can, how we can’t build 1,000 miles of train for less than $100 billion, and we can’t redo our country’s air traffic control system for less than a similar cost, but we could protect all the gazillions of vulnerable pieces of electronic equipment for a mere $2 billion?
A $2 Trillion Cost to Fix just Part of the Problem
Oh – we forgot to mention, and apparently Mr Pry forgot this, too. One of the biggest vulnerabilities to EMP is our national electricity distribution grid (click the link for one of our articles on this topic).
If the grid failed, it could take years to restore (if for no other reason, due to the lead times to get new transformers made and delivered). The cost of hardening the grid? According to this 2012 article, probably $1.5 – $2 trillion dollars.
So, please, make a case – if you can – for how, with $2 trillion to harden the electrical distribution network alone, we can harden that and the rest of the nation’s infrastructure too, for only $2 billion.
This $2 billion claim is beyond unbelievable. Why does Pry make this claim? For that matter, why does he also say that EMP attacks can be defended against in the first place?
Both claims seem to be total utter nonsense.
A Useful Reference Guide
The US Army Field Manual 3-3-1 has a useful appendix in it (Appendix C) that gives information on EMP. You can download it here.
Unfortunately, the manual is twenty years old and there is no sign of an updated edition having been released. Much of the material in it is based on studies and ‘state of the art’ design that is even older still. While the nature of an EMP effect has of course not changed much in the intervening 20 years (there are some suggestions that the former ‘limit’ on the maximum power of an EMP, caused by over-saturating the atmosphere with radiation, may have now been resolved, allowing for even higher powered devices with more severe effects) there have been enormous changes in technology.
The FM appendix repeatedly refers to the frequency of EMP radiation and ties that to being of greatest risk to radios that transmit/receive on the same frequencies, but understandably fails to consider the implications of one of the biggest changes in the last 20 years – the ever greater miniaturization of our electronics. As our chips get smaller and smaller and more densely packed with components, the separation between each part of the components gets smaller and smaller, meaning that the voltage level needed for a ‘flash over’ between one component and the next has gone down and down proportionally.
When the manual was written, typical distances inside chips were in the order of 750 – 1000 nanometers (a nanometer is one billionth of a meter). Today, distances are 15 – 20 nanometers – 50 times smaller. Densities of components are even more staggeringly enhanced – in 1994, a Pentium chip had something slightly in excess of 3 million transistors on it, today, an Xbox One main chip has 5 billion transistors on it.
All electronic devices are therefore massively more vulnerable than they were in 1994.
It is also important to realize, as the manual itself hints at, this is an unclassified manual written with an eye to who else will be reading it, in both friendly and unfriendly places. The manual is therefore more likely to put a positive spin on things, rather than say ‘If an EMP occurs, we’ve lost the battle before it starts’.
So, by all means read it, and learn from it, but appreciate its limitations and how the world has changed since then as well.