Russia and China have the ability to destroy the U.S. power grid and degrade military capabilities with a nonkinetic first strike—not only through the electromagnetic effects of nuclear and nonnuclear weapons, but also by means such as cyberattacks. The sun could similarly destroy all or parts of the system through a natural event.
An electromagnetic pulse (EMP) is the electromagnetic radiation from a nuclear explosion caused by Compton-recoil electrons and photoelectrons from photons scattered in the materials of the nuclear device or a surrounding medium. It can also be caused by nonnuclear weapons, though their effects are usually more geographically limited. The resulting electric and magnetic fields may couple with electrical or electronic systems to produce damaging current and voltage surges. Depending on the burst type, it can cause power spikes ranging from several hundred volts per meter up to more than 1 million volts per meter. Furthermore, it can cause component or subsystem burnout or degradation and system upset.
A coronal mass ejection (CME) is an explosive outburst of solar wind plasma from the sun. The blast of a CME typically carries roughly a billion tons of material at speeds on the order of hundreds of kilometers per second. A CME contains radiation and powerful magnetic fields. These blasts originate in magnetically disturbed regions of the corona, the sun’s upper atmosphere, and can have effects similar to a man-made EMP.
A high-altitude nuclear weapon detonated 25 miles above North America would destroy most U.S. electronics, high-voltage transformers, vehicles (including tactical ones), and other electrical machinery. A CME, depending on the severity, would produce a similar effect. Currently, 99 percent of all military bases rely on the civilian electric grid. While many analysts consider a nuclear-generated EMP unlikely, it is not the only threat. Recent overflights of balloons from China have been at altitudes high enough to cause a nuclear EMP.
The late Dr. Peter Vincent Pry was the executive director of the Task Force on National and Homeland Security, a congressional advisory board dedicated to protecting the United States from EMP, cyberattack, terrorist acts of mass destruction, and other threats to critical civilian infrastructure on an accelerated basis. According to the task force, U.S. plans to harden the electrical infrastructure against a high-altitude electromagnetic pulse (HEMP), non-nuclear electromagnetic pulse (NNEMP) weapon, or CME are virtually nonexistent.
In 2008, the Report of the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse Attack (EMP Commission) reported on the effects of an EMP. The report concluded that, one year after a large-scale EMP or CME, nine of every ten Americans would be dead, from a variety of causes stemming from the attack. Sadly, present-day hardening efforts remain nonexistent. In August 2021, Pry’s task force released Blackout Warfare: Attacking the U.S. Electric Power Grid, a Revolution in Military Affairs, and yet still no action to harden the grid has taken place.
Chinese and Russian military doctrines outline the use of HEMP weapons. Both states possess the capability to produce not only HEMP attacks, but also NNEMP attacks in conjunction with cyberattacks. As Blackout Warfare notes, “Washington does not understand the threat from EMP/CME, focusing almost entirely on cybersecurity, largely ignoring the other major threat vectors against electric grids—sabotage and EMP.” The Congressional EMP Commission states: “Combined-arms cyber warfare, as described in the military doctrines of Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran, may use combinations of cyber-, sabotage-, and ultimately nuclear EMP-attack to impair the United States quickly and decisively by blacking-out large portions of its electric grid and other critical infrastructures.”
Although an executive order—“Coordinating National Resilience to Electromagnetic Pulses”—exists and is intended to make national EMP preparedness a priority, very little progress has been made.
More Than a Threat
In 1859, a geomagnetic solar storm called the Carrington Event occurred. A massive CME erupted from the sun effectively disrupting all telegraph key communications across the world and destroying many. The CME melted the electrically powered telegraph keys and started a series of fires. In 1921, from 13 to 16 May, a CME knocked out telegraph keys, telephones, and other communication networks around the world. That CME was severe enough to start multiple fires, thanks mostly to switchboards bursting into flames. And in March 1989, the entire province of Quebec, Canada, suffered an electrical power blackout stemming from a CME. In 2012 a massive CME erupted from the sun, missing the Earth by just nine days.
The U.S. electrical infrastructure has suffered 721 known physical and cyberattacks in the past decade. One such attack was an attack by gunmen in 2013 in Metcalf, California. According to Pry, the attackers were never caught, and no one was arrested. Multiple government agencies were concerned the attack was a dress rehearsal for a larger-scale attack. One year later, the Metcalf substation was hit again when a fence was breached, and tools were stolen. Nothing has been done to increase the security posture of the compound. And in December 2022, substations in North Carolina, Washington State, and Oregon were attacked in manners similar to Metcalf.
Anyone can manufacture NNEMP weapons using commercial equipment and designs from the internet. These weapons can produce upward of 100,000 volts per meter, albeit only over short distances. High-powered microwave weapons are also a threat and can project EMPs out to 10 kilometers. Suitcase EMP generators can even be purchased online—no license required! A coordinated attack on the U.S. power grid against multiple facilities with such weapons would threaten the security of millions of Americans and the military. And Russia, in particular, has demonstrated an ability to shut off its adversaries’ lights through the use of cyberattacks.
Given this information, what might a long-term blackout look like? If the grid were to be attacked tomorrow, how would leaders command and control their Marines? How would Camp Pendleton communicate with Camp Lejeune? How would the Marine Corps communicate with the Navy? How would a mechanic fix a vehicle without step-by-step instructions on a computer or computer-aided diagnostic tools? How much reserve fuel, water, and food does each Marine Corps base have stored? Would leaders be able to keep their Marines, sailors, contractors, and their families fed? What about the local civilian population? How long would it be before they would be at the front gates of the base begging for or even demanding food? Have civilian and military leaders considered, if an EMP were to strike tomorrow, how many Marines would stick around? How many would flee to check in on their families? Answering these questions requires significant thought and planning.
A coordinated physical attack on multiple targets and facilities from a state or nonstate actor must be considered an imminent threat. An attack on an unprotected civilian grid could result in a long-term blackout event. Since 99 percent of the military depends on the civilian electric grid and food and water infrastructure, the military could be severely crippled.
Norman Angell’s 1910 book, The Great Illusion, postulated that there might be no more great wars because Europe and the United States were so interdependent—war would be bad for business. Only four years later, World War I started. And yet, something like Angell’s ideas again hold sway. If the United States and its economy collapsed, the entire world would suffer. Why would China, Russia, or any other nation risk their country's economic growth? Why would they risk more and more sanctions on trade? But in totalitarian countries, the goal of leaders is to stay in power, not help their least powerful citizens. As Pry notes:
Totalitarian and authoritarian states see international relations as a “zero-sum game” in which there are winners and losers, the living and the dead. Economics is not the highest priority for totalitarian states. Their highest priority is total control over the world, whatever the cost, because they believe that any nation not their slave is a potential threat and war is inevitable. Totalitarian states want to be the last man living and make everyone else a slave or dead. That is why they are willing to do anything to crush their enemies and win. EMP/Cyber Warfare, what I term blackout warfare, is a relatively easy, low-risk, even benign form of warfare compared to all-out Nuclear, Biological, and/or Chemical Warfare—all of which Moscow and Beijing are prepared and willing to do if they can win.
If Pry is correct, these leaders do not need a “why” to launch a full-scale combined arms blackout war on the United States—they are biding their time for “when.”
Get Real, Get Ready
This threat will materialize sooner or later—probably sooner. Leaders need to take it seriously and begin to act now. As for the Navy and Marine Corps, they and the other armed services should introduce existing technologies for electromagnetic hardening of infrastructure and systems for military equipment, bases, and vehicles as quickly as possible. Senior commanders can submit a Universal Needs Statement (UNS) to their chains of command, and small unit commanders can begin to study how to command and control in an electronically degraded environment—useful in a variety of possible contexts. Hardening efforts can begin to take place in phases, based on budgets for the year.
Jonathan Hollerman, deputy executive director for the EMP Task Force on National and Homeland Security, notes three specific psychological factors with regard to total grid failure: human desperation, starvation, and living without the rule of law. He asks, “How will the average soldier respond to a radical and unrecognizable new life filled with utter confusion and deep desperation, without access to regular food and effective oversight?” Military bases do not have the sustenance of food and water purification to sustain their forces and their families more than briefly. The average U.S. service member consumes roughly 2,000 pounds of food each year. Based on the basil metabolic rate, a male weighing 195 pounds will need to consume approximately 72,968 calories per month—more than 875,000 calories per year. Multiply that by how many people the base commander is responsible for. Simple math tells the hard truth, requiring commanders to ask: When the logistics and supply chain is broken countrywide, where will all this food come from? Does your base have enough stockpiled food to last a week, let alone months to a year? How can the military effectively command and control a force it cannot even feed?
Leaders must ask themselves: Can my unit sustain in the fight if hit locally or regionally with a combination of NNEMPs and high-powered microwave weapons? Does your unit have the right standard operating procedures? Do you have the resources to protect communication equipment with Faraday cages? What companies can assist with tactical vehicle hardening efforts?
The Marine Corps has a history of being reactive instead of proactive. In Iraq, tactical vehicles were destroyed by improvised explosive devices. The service should have learned lessons about this after Vietnam. Instead, we watched as Marines and sailors were maimed and died. Had we been proactive, history might have turned out differently. We should be training for the next fight. Marine Corps Doctrine Publication-1 mentions the word initiative at least 45 times. Let’s not be too late to take the initiative, so we don’t have to ask questions later about why didn’t we see this coming and why didn’t we prepare for it. As the old notion has it: Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst, and let God do the rest.