The Threat to Melt the Electric Grid

The Pentagon is moving the headquarters for the North American Aerospace Defense Command (Norad) back into Cheyenne Mountain near Colorado Springs, Colo., a decade after having largely vacated the site.

Why the return? Because the enormous bunker in the hollowed-out mountain, built to survive a Cold War-era nuclear conflict, can also resist an electromagnetic-pulse attack, or EMP. America’s military planners recognize the growing threat from an EMP attack by bad actors around the world, in particular North Korea and Iran.

An EMP strike, most likely from the detonation of a nuclear weapon in space, would destroy unprotected military and civilian electronics nationwide, blacking out the electric grid and other critical infrastructure for months or years. The staggering human cost of such a catastrophic attack is not difficult to imagine.

The primary headquarters for Norad, which provides early warning and command and control for the defense of the U.S. against nuclear attack, has for a decade been at nearby Peterson Air Force Base. Critical Norad operations are being moved back into Cheyenne Mountain, and the Pentagon recently awarded a $700 million contract to Raytheon to upgrade electronics through 2020.

At an April 7 Pentagon news conference, Norad Commander Adm. William Gortney noted that Norad is going back underground “because of the very nature of the way that Cheyenne Mountain’s built. It’s EMP-hardened.” He explained that North Korea now has mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles, the KN-08, armed with nuclear warheads, that can strike the U.S. While the KN-08 is inaccurate, it could be used to launch a high-altitude nuclear EMP attack.

Adm. Gortney reassured those at the news conference that the U.S. can defend itself from a nuclear-missile threat from North Korea—or from Iran “if we get our assessment wrong,” he said, referring to the current nuclear negotiations. U.S. missile defense, he said, is “able to defend the nation against both those particular threats today.”

That is true as far as it goes—but only if an attack on the U.S. comes from the northern skies. Former senior Reagan administration officials warn that the U.S. is unprepared to cope with nuclear EMP strikes from North Korea and Iran if their missiles’ trajectory takes a southern route.

We are among those former Reagan officials. We joined William Graham (President Reagan’s science adviser and subsequent chairman of the Congressional EMP Commission) and Fritz Ermarth (a former chairman of the National Intelligence Council) in warning in Newsmax in February that Iran should be regarded as already having nuclear missiles capable of making an EMP attack against the U.S. Iran and North Korea have successfully orbited satellites on south-polar trajectories that appear to practice evading U.S. missile defenses, and at optimum altitudes to make a surprise EMP attack.

The U.S. has no ballistic-missile early-warning radars or ground-based interceptors facing south and would be blind to a nuclear warhead orbited as a satellite from a southern trajectory. The missile defense plans were oriented during the Cold War for a northern strike from the Soviet Union, and they have not been adapted for the changing threats.

The Pentagon was wise to move Norad communications back into Cheyenne Mountain and to take measures elsewhere to survive an EMP attack. But how are the American people to survive? In the event of a yearlong nationwide blackout, tens of millions of Americans would perish from starvation and societal chaos, according to members of the Congressional EMP Commission, which published its last unclassified report in 2008.

Yet President Obama has not acted on the EMP Commission’s draft executive order to protect national infrastructure that is essential to provide for the common defense. Hardening the national electric grid would cost a few billion dollars, a trivial amount compared with the loss of electricity and lives following an EMP attack. The U.S. also should deploy one of its existing transportable radars in the Philippines to help the ground-based interceptors at California’s Vandenberg Air Force defend the country against an attack from the south.

Congress also has failed to act on the plans of its own EMP commission to protect the electric grid and other civilian infrastructure that depends on a viable electric grid—such as communications, transportation, banking—that are essential to the economy. In recent years, the GRID Act, the Shield Act, and the Critical Infrastructure Protection Act have gained bipartisan and even unanimous support in the House, yet they died in the Senate.

States are not waiting for Washington to act. Maine and Virginia have enacted legislation and undertaken serious studies to consider how to deal with an EMP attack. Florida’s governor and emergency manager are considering executive action to harden their portion of the grid. Colorado legislators are holding hearings on legislation to protect their citizens. Texas, North Carolina, South Carolina, Indiana, Idaho and New York have initiatives in various stages to deal with an EMP attack.

When ancient Rome could no longer protect its empire from barbarians, cities tried to protect themselves by building walls. Now Washington, unable or unwilling to protect its people, is making it necessary for states to build their own defenses against the electromagnetic-pulse barbarians of the 21st century.

Amb. Cooper is the former director of the Strategic Defense Initiative. Mr. Pry is executive director of the EMP Task Force on National and Homeland Security and served in the EMP Commission, the House Armed Services Committee, and the Central Intelligence Agency.

  • I am surprised that no action has been taken, this has been a known threat since virtually the advent of the nuclear era.

    • Drunk_by_Noon

      It’s one of those weird threats that’s hard to quantify. No nuclear power is going to just detonate a weapon 100,000 feet over the contenental U.S. and not expect to be blown into oblivion by retaliation.
      Mil Spec electronics have been EMP hardened since the 1960’s, so I really don’t get the gist of this story.
      Also, EMPs or the threat they pose, are largely overstated. It might fry everything in an area the size of Kansas but it would have to be A LOT of very big detonations (10MT+) over all of North America to completely fry everything with any degree of reliability, and at that point it’s already a full-blown “Nuclear War”.
      NORAD is moving back into that mountain for some other reason.

      • Raymond Hietapakka

        Sure, the Pentagon and the Kleptocracy’s electronics will be a-ok…but everyone else’s stuff will be trash. I bet Apple will start to design their stuff to be even more susceptable…

      • Interesting.

  • Waffle

    The Aussies made a movie about it in 1979 — Mad Max:

    “In a dystopian future Australia, law and order has begun to break down following a major energy crisis. Most of the Outback has been reduced to low-populated communities with low fuel and a relatively peaceful life, with major metropolitan cities still continuing to exist. However, motorcycle gangs scavenge the lands and terrorize the population. As such, Main Force Patrol, an out-run police force, has been created to patrol the lands to uphold the remains of law and justice.”

    And guess what? A new Mad Max film, Fury Road, is coming soon! (May 15)

  • eMan14

    Can you say Prepper?

  • canminuteman

    It is my understanding that an EMP attack works my ionizing the air. Air is normally an insulator. This is what keeps electricity in the power lines. When the air becomes ionic, and conductive, you get arcing between power lines. This is bad. How big a bomb you need to do this, or over how wide an area it happens, I don’t know, but this is the mechanics of an EMP attack. Solar flares also have the same effect and it happens moderately often. Protective systems in the hydro distribution system can protect against this to a certain degree, which means you have local black outs that can be fixed in pretty short order. I think that drunk by noon’s assessment is accurate. I wish I could be drunk by noon but I have to much work to do today. Maybe drunk by 10 pm !

    • Drunk_by_Noon

      It’s a lifestyle choice in which you have to be committed to.
      ‘Like tantric Buddhism or something.

  • Hard Little Machine

    Don’t worry – Federal contracting is so slow moving it will be decade or more until the site is usable again. And the cost will run to 10 figures.