Is the U.S. Prepared for an EMP Event?

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Michael Maloof is the author of A Nation Forsaken: EMP-The Escalating Threat of an American Catastrophe.

Maloof is a former senior policy analyst for the U.S. Office of the Secretary of Defense and has almost 30 years of federal service, 23 of which were with the Defense Department. He was the Director of Technology Security Operations, where he led a 10-man team in tracking and prevention the proliferation of dangerous weapons.

After the 9/11 attacks, Maloof was detailed back to the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy to prepare analysis of worldwide terrorist networks.

The following is Clarion Project National Security Analyst Ryan Mauro’s interview with Michael Maloof:

Ryan Mauro: Are there any serious objections from the scientific community about the danger from a potential EMP event?

Michael Maloof:  Scientists generally are in agreement that a natural or man-made electromagnetic pulse, or EMP, can be devastating to our unprotected electrical grid, electronics and automated control systems. Depending on its intensity, an EMP can have a potentially catastrophic, cascading impact on all of the electricity-dependent critical infrastructures on which we rely for survival.

The importance of this problem became apparent after some members of Congress had been told by the Russian Duma, or parliament, members that their country could “bring America to its knees” with one EMP nuclear device exploded at a high altitude, destroying the U.S. grid. As a consequence, Congress in 2000 mandated the creation of an EMP Commission of prominent scientists to look at the effects of an EMP on our national grid and all of the critical infrastructures which depend on it. 

In a 2004 preliminary report and again in a final, more in-depth report, the EMP Commission showed in considerable detail the catastrophic impact an EMP would have on such critical infrastructures as telecommunications, banking and finance, petroleum and natural gas delivery, transportation, food and water delivery, emergency services and space systems. 

In issuing the 2008 report, which proposed a series of recommendations, the EMP Commission chairman, Dr. William Graham, said that an EMP event, whether natural or man-made, would cause “unprecedented cascading failures of major infrastructures.” In that event, he said, “a regional or national recovery would be long and difficult, and would seriously degrade the safety and overall viability of our Nation.” 

Given the prospect of an EMP event over a wide geographical area of the country, it could push the nation back virtually to the 19th century, with our urban environment being the most severely affected.  Some EMP experts suggest the urban centers of the United States could become extinct given the high potential for disease and other secondary effects from an EMP, leading to the prospect of death and starvation to some 90 percent of the U.S. population.

Mauro:  Wouldn't above-ground nuclear tests during the Cold War have created a disastrous EMP effect if this science were accurate?

Maloof: The tests were conducted primarily in the Pacific Ocean area and they were not high-altitude bursts.  Nevertheless, it was during those tests that EMP was first detected after a test explosion affected communications some 800 miles away in Hawaii. EMP experts say all electronics and instruments were affected in the test area.  In seeing this result, further tests were conducted by the British and then Soviets and determined that the potential of an EMP on electronics, communications and the grid were dramatic.  Because our electronics today have become more sophisticated, the likelihood of an EMP event on them will be even greater, if left unprotected.

Mauro:  What countries are developing EMP capabilities and would the movement of nuclear warheads onto ships and then to the U.S. coast be detected?

Maloof: All countries with nuclear weapons are very aware of the effects of an EMP and know their nuclear weapons create an EMP effect.  Some countries, such as North Korea and China, have created what is referred to as a “super-EMP,” designed to emit more gamma rays than to create destruction from the blast.

Not only China and North Korea know about EMPs, but also Russia, Iran, Pakistan and India similarly know about EMP and have incorporated the concept in their military doctrine.  The most recent nuclear tests conducted by North Korea, for example, was low in kilotons but thought to be high in gamma rays –in effect, developing a “super-EMP” that could be exploded at a high-altitude over the United States, greatly affecting critical U.S. infrastructures.  In knowing what the impact of an EMP would be on electrical grid systems and all electronics, these countries are undertaking efforts to harden their own electronics to mitigate EMP effects on their technology-based systems. 

Unless there is good real-time intelligence, it would be difficult to detect a nuclear device that could be moved by ship toward the U.S. coasts. Indeed, a country with a nuclear weapon really doesn’t need an intercontinental ballistic missile capability.  It only needs to use a false-flag freighter to approach the U.S. coast and assimilate into the heavy shipping traffic that exists along our coasts.  Then, a simple Scud missile which would be in the bowels of the vessel could be raised to the deck and launched off our coasts without warning or detection.  For example, such a vessel could position itself along the U.S. East Coast and fire a high-altitude nuclear device over the most populated area of the United States between Boston and Washington.

There also is another growing problem just within our hemisphere, and that is the relationship between Cuba and North Korea.  It was a major surprise to the U.S. intelligence community when it recently had a North Korean vessel detained going through the Panama Canal.  Intelligence had suggested the vessel was carrying drugs.   However, upon inspection, the vessel was found to be carrying components and possibly a complete Cuban SA-2, or ground-to-air anti-aircraft missile.  The SA-2s are nuclear-capable.  The Cubans are assessed to have some 100 SA-2, going back to the days of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. 

Although designed to be used against aircraft, an SA-2 armed with a North Korean “super-EMP” device and fired without any warning along the U.S. East coast to a high altitude of some 50 kilometers would knock out at least the eastern grid, which services some 70 percent of the U.S. population.  The missile could be fired from a ship whose identity would not immediately be ascertained, if at all.  At such a close range, it also is doubtful whether an anti-ballistic missile system would be able to react in time to intercept it. 

Given these possible scenarios, it is all the more reason why it is imperative that the United States federal government, in cooperation with state governments and the local utilities, make it a priority to harden all electronics and the national grids – there are three – Eastern, Western and Texas grids – to mitigate this potential, catastrophic outcome on our technologically based critical infrastructures. 


Mauro:  What would it cost the U.S. government to protect the power grid? If it did so, would an EMP attack still be catastrophic?

Maloof: The cost varies, but it can be up to $20 billion over a few years’ period.  While that might seem to be a massive amount, it is very little compared to the alternative. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, for example, has projected the cost from a direct hit from a solar flare would cost some $2 trillion in the first year, take four to 10 years to recover and affect the lives of more than 160 million people, meaning that they would either die or starve.  The EMP effect from a high-altitude nuclear explosion, however, could be worse, since it is more intense than the impact of a solar flare. 

A direct hit from a solar flare is perhaps our most immediate threat of an EMP.  The sun is fast approaching a “solar storm maximum” which occurs every 11 years.  We’re now beginning the most intense period of that 11-year solar cycle.  The greatest intensity of an increasing number of solar flares spewing from the sun’s surface is expected between now and all of 2014.  

While some $20 billion would go to harden the major critical infrastructures, it will mitigate greatly the impact of an EMP event, but it won’t be totally foolproof.  The nation would be in a far better position to sustain an EMP, whether from natural or man-made events, if the national effort to harden all electronics is undertaken now.


Mauro:  What can average citizens do to prepare for a potential EMP?

Maloof:  The fact that the federal government has been aware of the effects of an EMP event on our critical infrastructures but has done nothing has placed the burden of preparation on individual citizens at the state and local level.

I have outlined in my recent book on EMP what individuals need and can do to  prepare for such an event.  It is titled A Nation Forsaken: EMP-The Escalating Threat of an American Catastrophe.

Since the time of the EMP Commission’s revelations of the impact of an EMP event on those technologically-based critical infrastructures, the federal government still hasn’t treated it as a national security issue.  For example, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security still does not regard an EMP event as one of its 15 National Planning Scenarios which offer procedures to be implemented in the event of a catastrophic emergency, such as floods or terrorism.

Congress once again has introduced the SHIELD Act to give the federal government more authority to require hardening of the national grid and electronics that affect those critical infrastructures but, to date, it hasn’t been able to pass the Senate even though the House in previous Congresses did pass it.

Consequently, individual citizens need to take the initiative from the ground up rather than waiting for decisions to be made at the national level.

Individuals can initiate action with their state legislatures and governors.  Indeed, citizens of Maine took such action last June to harden their grid.  The hope is that other state legislatures will take similar action in the near future.

Also, emergency services at the local levels need to determine whether they can respond if an EMP is to occur. Any exercise must assume that all communications have been knocked out and that emergency responders will have difficulty in reacting since emergency vehicles could be affected since they have electronic ignitions.  Testimony in Maine from emergency responders revealed that emergency vehicles could be taken out of the game because of an EMP. 

Consideration therefore should be given to creating pre-determined locations where communities know beforehand where there is food, water, medications and shelter to which individuals and families need to report.  That means that communities need to begin stocking up on supplies and have locations pre-selected so that there is some degree of orderliness in the face of such an emergency.

Individuals need to prepare so-called “go-bags” that have essentials for each individual of a family, including firearms. 

Under such chaotic conditions, there is no doubt that gangs may begin roaming neighborhoods and more rural locations and individuals need to be able to protect their families and possessions.

People who have experienced the impact of temporarily having no electricity and no means of transportation in times of floods, hurricanes and past natural disasters know what such chaotic conditions are like.

In the case of an EMP, people need to place themselves into a 19th century existence and figure out what they will need in a household, such as a supply of stored food, water and medications on which they may need to survive for weeks, months and possibly years.


Ryan Mauro is the ClarionProject.org’s National Security Analyst, a fellow with the Clarion Project and is frequently interviewed on top-tier TV stations as an expert on counterterrorism and Islamic extremism.

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Meira Svirsky

Meira Svirsky is the editor of ClarionProject.org

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