EMP attack on power grid could take down DOD systems, experts warn

Defense systems that depend on the commercial electric grid are vulnerable to electromagnetic pulse attacks and solar storms that could seriously damage the nation’s infrastructure, experts from the Homeland Security and Defense departments told a House Homeland Security subcommittee.

The likelihood and the effects of such an event have been the subject of debate, and legislation that would require defenses against them is stalled in the House.

Major military weapons systems and nuclear assets are hardened against EMP events, but “DOD is heavily dependent on the commercial electric grid,” Michael Aimone, director of DOD Business Enterprise Integration, told the subcommittee on Cybersecurity, Infrastructure Protection and Security Technologies.

Related coverage:

DHS outlines goals for nation's critical infrastructure

Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), who testified as a witness at the Sept. 12 hearing, said Russia and several other countries are developing an offensive EMP capability, but there is little protection against such attacks on the commercial grid. He called for installing hardware protection for the most critical elements.

”The major vulnerability we have right now is damage to our major transformers,” which could put parts of the national grid out of operation for years, Franks said. Operational procedures cannot provide timely response, he added, but equipment called neutral phase blockers could provide cost-effective and automatic protection from surges that could cause damage.

Current regulations do not require this protection, however, and industry has been slow to adopt it, although Chris Beck, president of the Electric Infrastructure Security Council, said there are no significant technical or financial barriers to deploying it.

Electromagnetic pulse is an electrical disruption that can be caused by high-altitude nuclear explosions or naturally by solar activities such as flares. Studies by the congressionally established EMP Commission and by Oak Ridge National Laboratory have concluded that in a worst-case scenario a serious event could leave large portions of the nation’s power grid out of service for four to 10 years by causing physical damage to transformers and other equipment. Communications systems and individual electrical devices also could be at risk.

The likelihood of such an event has been questioned, however. The North American Electric Reliability Corp., which is charged with creating mandatory reliability standards for the U.S. bulk power distribution industry, believes it is more likely that there would be little physical damage and resulting problems would last only days.

Beck blamed the lack of preparedness on industry inertia and lack of awareness.

Current processes for creating industry standards are inadequate to address such threats to national security, said Joseph McClelland, director of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s Office of Electric Reliability. NERC writes the standards, and FERC can only approve or reject them.

“The procedures used by NERC are appropriate for developing and approving routine reliability standards,” McClelland said. “However, it can be an impediment when measures or actions need to be taken to address threats to national security quickly and in a manner that protects against the disclosure of security-sensitive information.”

The SHIELD Act (H.R. 668), introduced last year by Franks, would enable FERC to establish reliability standards for the bulk power system to protect against EMP attacks. No action has been taken on the bill.

DOD currently relies on on-site and mobile back-up generators to protect against disruptions from outages in the commercial grid, and also is developing next-generation microgrids to enable local generation and storage of power on bases.

This could not only protect against outages but enable better local energy supplies and the balancing of supply and demand. DOD's Aimone said microgrid demonstration projects currently are under way at 29 Palms Marine Corps base in California and at Fort Bliss, Texas.


About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

inside gcn

  • urban air mobility (NASA)

    NASA seeks partners for urban air mobility challenge

Reader Comments

Tue, Jun 16, 2015 George

Why is the emp threat under reported by the media? I get the impression that our government does not want the public to know how serious this is and does not want us to know they are doing nothing about it. I guess if an emp happens and it is as bad as many experts say it will be the survivors duty to find out where our leaders are hiding, haul them out and string them up for being guilty of the greatest act of selfishness and negligence in the history of the world.

Fri, Sep 14, 2012 Steve

The most effective NEMP weapons are smaller than big nukes. They can be launched from freighters - like container ships using mid range missiles. It only takes one about 250 miles up to take out most of the computers that control everything. Anything connected to wires is susceptible to EMP. SCADAs, transformers, chips, etc. Then you sink the ship so that theres no evidence. The explosion would be too high up to leave trace elements. If this was done by a clandestine operation - exactly who do we go after? We'd have some ideas but without any real proof our friends Russia and China wouldn't support us taking anyone out with whatever we have left working. Granted we'd have plenty available but the damage would be done and it would be years before we bounced back. If we ever did. Casualties would be horrific due to disease, starvation, dehydration, crime, and suicide. We do not have the systems in place to live like they did in the 17-1800s and we have 100 times the population if not more. We definitely need to invest the money in our infrastructure to protect our electricity which is the lifeblood this country runs on.

Thu, Sep 13, 2012 d-man

Fortunately, not too many countries can air burst a nuke over the US. And we'd see it and retaliate with the mutually assured destruction policy of the cold war. Sure, we should prepare, but I'm really not too concerned. There much easier ways to attack us.

Thu, Sep 13, 2012 Paul

As stated, this has been a known vulnerability for a very long time. Although EMPs and coronal ejections get the attention, there are less massive ways to accomplish this on a small scale. The technology has existed, and been used, since at least the 80's. I'm not sure how easy it would be for a terrorist use but given how much technology has grown, it wouldn't surprise me if things have been scaled down to a more portable level.

Thu, Sep 13, 2012

This threat has been known since early in the Cold War days. EMP blasts are the real threat from nuclear bombs.

Show All Comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above

More from 1105 Public Sector Media Group