The EMP threat isn't as imminent as alarmists would have us believe
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The threat of an electromagnetic pulse attack from North Korea’s rogue regime is not as severe as many have argued.

One column recently published by The Hill presented a scenario whereby North Korea would explode a nuclear weapon with the aim of an EMP attack on Japan and South Korea. The “logical” conclusion of such an attack was posited to be no less than the destruction of the American way of life. Claims have similarly been made that an EMP attack on the U.S. could kill up to 90 percent Of Americans.

As much as any other congressional professional staffer, my decade in service on Capitol Hill bore witness to innumerable competing discussions of existential threats to our nation’s security and calls to action. It was our duty then, and remains so today as an American citizen, to place these threats in context and order of feasibility and cost. Our national debt, adversarial state actors, ISIS and other non-state actors all demand time and a share of scarce resources.

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It is within this context that any renewed focus and energy spent discussing potential EMP attacks should be placed, especially when it comes to calls for preemptive action.

 

In a recent Hearing of the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Chairwoman Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiHeitkamp ad highlights record as Senate race heats up Icebreaking ships are not America’s top priority in the Arctic 13 GOP senators ask administration to pause separation of immigrant families MORE (R-Alaska) put the issue in context. “The United States has recognized a potential EMP attack as a national security threat for decades, and our efforts to understand a potential EMP burst are not new,” Murkowski said.

In fact, the Department of Defense and national labs have been studying these issues since nuclear weapons came into existence. Extensive tests in the 1950s and 1960s examined the potential impact of an EMP burst on both military and civilian infrastructure. The threat remains under study.

Leading off the May 2017 witnesses at the hearing in front of the Senate ENR Committee was Cheryl LaFleur, the acting chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Her testimony is worth noting:

“While there has been much written regarding the nature of the threat from EMP, consensus has not been reached regarding how best to protect against it,” LaFleur said. “While the military has developed protocols to protect key assets, these protocols have been described by Los Alamos National Laboratory as ‘not widely implemented in civilian applications due to the expense,’ and by Idaho National Laboratory as “focused on load center protection for communication stations, control and mission critical facilities, not distribution, transmission and large generation assets for the electric power grid.”

“Given the scope and potential cost of an effort to protect the entire grid against an EMP attack, I think it is prudent that FERC not launch a mandatory standard unless it concludes that the standard would effectively mitigate the threat at a justifiable cost,” she added. “Ongoing research by DHS, DOE, and others eventually may support such a conclusion, but to date, FERC has not reached that conclusion.”

In other words, the EMP threat is real, but in today’s world of competing challenges, not a top threat or priority in an age of limited resources.

As for saber rattling, North Korea appears to be – like always – retreating from its most bellicose positions. Let’s hope our policymakers listen to the head of FERC, and not alarmists with little grounding in real world probability and practicality.

Gregory T. Kiley is a former senior professional staff member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and U.S. Air Force Officer.


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