May 2, 2019

Protecting the Nation from Electromagnetic Pulse


  • On March 26, President Trump issued an executive order on coordinating the nation’s ability to prevent and respond to electromagnetic pulses, whether they are natural or man-made.
  • The order assigns specific tasks to the National Security Council, the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and various cabinet offices to plan for an EMP.
  • Congress created commissions as early as 2000 to study and offer recommendations on preventing and reacting to an EMP attack, and federal agencies and electric utilities have recently begun research and mitigation measures.  

Electromagnetic pulses, or EMPs, have been known to be a national security threat since the 1960s. High altitude nuclear tests in the Pacific and in Soviet Russia were shown to affect electric grids and other critical infrastructure hundreds of miles away. An EMP or similar type of natural effect could disable the United States electric grid for days, weeks, or even months.

The global economy’s increasing reliance on not only electricity but constant wired and wireless connection of devices would mean a much more catastrophic effect today. A long-term electric grid blackout would disable communications, transportation, and commerce, as well as basic food and water supplies. According to NASA, similar effects on the electric grids around the world could also occur naturally from solar storms and flares. These are known as “geomagnetic disturbances,” or GMDs. 

With this in mind, President Trump issued an executive order on March 26 to coordinate the nation’s ability to prevent and respond to the effects of an EMP attack or a naturally occurring GMD.

president trump’s executive order on EMP

The executive order assigns roles for several executive branch departments:

  • National Security Council and the Office of Science and Technology Policy at the White House will lead the coordination of the government’s efforts.

  • State Department will lead all efforts in coordination with our allies, as well as nuclear nonproliferation efforts.

  • Department of Homeland Security will provide information to federal, state, and local governments as well as owners and operators of critical infrastructure. DHS will coordinate recovery and response to an EMP and will conduct exercises and tests to help prepare for EMPs.

  • Defense Department will provide early warning and identification of an EMP, including one affecting our space systems. As the agency with the most experience with EMP protection, it will also conduct research and share technical expertise with other agencies.

  • Commerce Department will provide forecasts of natural GMD events and work with the private sector.

  • Energy Department will conduct research and coordinate with private-sector energy companies on protecting the electric grid and improving our ability to restart the grid after a catastrophic outage.

congressional interest in emp and GMD

Congress has created commissions to study and offer recommendations on U.S. policy regarding an EMP attack or GMD event.

One of these, called simply the EMP Commission, was authorized in 2000 and reauthorized in 2006 to study and offer recommendations on national policies regarding the pulses. It issued several reports, but in 2015, GAO found that federal agencies were not enacting the commission’s recommendations. GAO later concluded in February 2018 that while some electric suppliers in the United States have begun to address risks from an EMP or GMD event, there is more work to be done. One supplier noted that protective measures like using specifications and materials designed to protect against or mitigate the effects of an EMP can add 5 to 20 percent to the cost of an upgrade.

The House Committee on Homeland Security convened a hearing in October 2017 to consider the threat of an EMP attack from North Korea and included experts from the EMP Commission. In May 2017, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing to examine the threats posed by an electromagnetic pulse. The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee has held hearings and working group discussions on EMPs and GMDs, most recently on February 27, 2019.

trying to mitigate the risk

Parts of the military have at least some level of protection from EMPs and GMDs. U.S. Strategic Command, which is responsible for the command and control of our nation’s nuclear arsenal, could withstand an EMP attack or GMD event and continue to operate for several days. The National Airborne Operations Center, which includes a small fleet of Boeing 747 airplanes able to serve as the backup to the military’s command center, is hardened against the effects of an electromagnetic pulse.

Last year, a report on EMP found that DOD may not be fully prepared to operate in case of an EMP attack even in the limited cases where it has protection. The report criticized DOD for doing modeling and simulation but not full testing to verify that systems will work as intended after an EMP event.

In 2017, the Department of Energy published a plan to address the threat of an EMP or GMD event. The department recognized the difference between DOD’s protection for command and control of nuclear forces and the needs for commercial utilities to protect high-voltage substations. It called for additional research into low-cost protection for the most vulnerable aspects of an electrical system, including protection for the assets that would be needed to restart an electric grid after a catastrophic event.

Issue Tag: National Security