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Electromagnetic Defense - Blackout North America

An Overview of Current Electromagnetic Defense Capability


This report was developed from information gathered at the 20180820–22 Inaugural summit of EDTF (Electromagnetic Defense Task Force). EDTF is made up of 135 top Electromagnetic Spectrum (EMS) experts, strategists, and scholars representing more than 40 DoD organizations, NATO, academia, and private sector industries. The summit consisted of 2,000 hours of seminars, workshops, and war games focusing on electromagnetic pulse (EMP), geomagnetic disturbance (GMD), lasers and optics, directed energy (DE), high-power microwaves (HPM), and EMS management. The objective was to inform prioritized actions for communities at local, federal, and international levels to confront the multitude of EMS threats both natural or manmade.



The electromagnetic spectrum (EMS) is comprised of visible light, lasers, and unobservable phenomena like microwaves, radio, and other electromagnetic energy. These can be manifested naturally from the sun and solar storms or artificially by radar or nuclear weapons. Communications, data transfer and storage, the “Internet of Things” (IoT), and numerous military and economic functions – including banking and GPS – are conducted and maintained through the EMS. A free and secure EMS is essential for the function and continuity of government, military, and commerce.

EMS threats can be natural or manmade. Naturally occurring Geomagnetic disturbances (GMD’s) are caused by solar activities including Coronal Mass Ejections (CME’s). While these do naturally occur and have hit Earth before, they are inconsistent in their magnitude and scope of effects. Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) is an effect of all nuclear detonations. High altitude detonations give off the most severe EMP effects. Surface detonations cause much more physical damage and EMP is less impactful.  Directed Energy (DE) and High-power microwaves (HPM) are very localized and focused; their effects are generally limited to their small targeted areas.



GMD and EMP affects all devices with solid-state electronics and could render inoperative the main grid and backup power systems, such as on-site generators. In the event of a GMD, effects would be less severe as the wave would only impact elements of the power grid such as large power transformers. However, an EMP would cause instantaneous and simultaneous loss of many technologies reliant on electrical power and computer circuit boards, such as cell phones and GPS devices. All non-EMP-hardened equipment and hardware have a very high likelihood of failure or disruption. Failures may include long-term (6 months or more) of electrical power, fresh and waste water, banking, landlines and cellular services, vehicles, and more. It is probable that such widespread failures will result in civil unrest in a matter of hours. Most experts agree that if a GMD or EMP incapacitates an electrical grid, the grid will likely remain in a failed state from weeks to months.

Nuclear power plants and their reactors are particularly vulnerable to EMS threats. In a disaster, reactors are designed to stop producing heat. Residual heat from the stopped nuclear reaction can often last for weeks or even months. Normally, water is circulated through electrically powered cooling systems. Spent nuclear fuel must have water circulating to remove heat as well. Failure to remove heat from the water will cause the water to boil off and in in turn the radioactivity of the spent fuel will be exposed to the environment as well as the radioactivity of the steam itself. Most stations have 16 hours of battery power to continue cooling reactors and spent fuel rods. And EMP or GMD of sufficient magnitude could impact all reactors in an affected region simultaneously. For the US, this means the possible meltdowns of 60 sites with 99 reactors, including more than 60,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel in storage pools. Second- and third-order effects would mean 4.1 million people displaced and 94,000 square miles contaminated.

Despite knowledge of EMP and its effects since the Cold War, the United States military installations and the National Military Command Authority (NMCA) are considered the “vulnerable underbelly of the defense enterprise.” If natural or deliberate EMS threats affect a military installation command post, the capabilities of associated forces may likely be degraded or stopped completely. Most equipment not hardened or protected by Faraday cages would be incapacitated instantly. Post-EMP, a conventional uninterruptible power system may only have hours of battery power to sustain over-the-horizon communications. Most military equipment operators are unaware of how to shield equipment from EMS, let alone how to recover if it fails.

There is also growing concern about how individuals may be physically impacted by EMS events, and even the potential development and usage of EMS-based weapons.  It was long believed that GMD and other EMS phenomena or attack lacked the ability to directly harm the human body.  However, recent history reveals that some effects can be extremely dangerous. Recent suspected EMS-based attacks in Cuba and China show that persons can become severely ill and even sustain injury from EMS effects. The nature of the EMS activities that caused the health issues of more than 20 diplomats is not yet openly understood. The effects, however, are well understood. Personnel at those locations are believed to have suffered traumatic brain injuries while sleeping. In the future, it may be possible to incapacitate or kill the crew of a ship while leaving the vessel intact. Tactics like this could be employed against airborne assets as well – with devastating effects. Directed energy (DE) weapons, lasers, and other EMS phenomena are usually undetectable until the effects are encountered. By then, though, it may be too late to alleviate harm.



Recommendations focus on three phases:  Prevention. Mitigation. Recovery.

Prevention: All attempts should be made to dissuade any state or state-sponsored actor from acting, by threat of credible response and certainty their actions will fall short of desired results.

Mitigation: Actions must be taken pre-event to reduce the severity and duration of EMS effects. This includes upgrading and protecting the power grid and telecommunications infrastructure, along with rigorous education and realistic training across government, public and private sectors.

Recovery: The report recommends creating “Black Start Teams” (BST’s) to reboot any remaining functioning infrastructure. At a local level, it recommends civil-military partnerships, unique solutions for local communities, deliberate education, and outreach for community resilience.

National Level recommendations call for a shift in public sentiment and government policy, immediate prioritization of the protection of nuclear power stations, investment in 5G internet, recommended national standards for protection of transportation, and a broadened definition of resilience in technical specifications, specifically the inclusion of the language “to sustain operations for at least 30 days”. Congressional policy that incentivizes EMP protection, and base-wide EMS protection at military installations are also suggested.

Regional Level recommendations focus on moving spent nuclear fuel to dry cask storage to reduce hazards, improvement of protocols to allow forces to link up in the event of command and control loss, and an increase in the realism of regional training exercises. Locally, the report recommends developing, equipping and training BST’s, and creating microgrids to act as firebreaks in the main grid. Partnerships with local communities to implement EMS protection and develop community resilience will support these efforts.



EMS threats and vulnerabilities have matured while national and international capabilities to deny or even mitigate those threats have not kept pace and are almost completely ineffective. In many areas there is a complete lack of strategy altogether. Both the military and civilian society are unprepared to mitigate high-impact EMS threats.  It is imperative that we take immediate action at national, regional, local, and individual levels to better prepare ourselves for the possibility of such events.


Stuart Cregger is a Representative at the Portland, Oregon branch of Complete Threat Preparedness.


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