America’s Air Force Is Guarding Against Electromagnetic Pulse Attacks. Should We Worry?

An anonymous reader shared this report from Live Science: A U.S. Air Force base in Texas has taken the first steps to guard against an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack. But what, exactly, is an EMP, and how big is the threat…? An EMP is a massive burst of electromagnetic energy that can occur naturally or be generated deliberately using nuclear weapons. While many experts don’t think EMPs pose a big threat, some people argue that these types of weapons could be used to cause widespread disruption to electricity-dependent societies.

“You can use a single weapon to collapse the entire North American power grid,” said defense analyst Peter Pry, who served on the Congressional EMP Commission, which was set up to assess the threat of EMP attacks but shut down in 2017. “Once the electric grid goes down, everything would collapse,” Pry told Live Science. “Everything depends on electricity: telecommunications, transportation, even water…. We’ve arrived at a place where a single individual can topple the technological pillars of civilization for a major metropolitan area all by himself armed with some device like this,” he said…

The threat posed by EMPs is far from settled, though. A 2019 report by the Electric Power Research Institute, which is funded by utility companies, found that such an attack would probably cause regional blackouts but not a nationwide grid failure and that recovery times would be similar to those of other large-scale outages… “There are other ways that adversaries can achieve some of the same outcomes, some of which would be cheaper and some of which would be less discernible,” Frank Cilluffo, director of Auburn University’s McCrary Institute for Cyber and Critical Infrastructure Security, told Live Science. Such alternatives might include cyberattacks to take out critical infrastructure, including the electric grid, or even efforts to disrupt space-based communications or the GPS system that modern society is so reliant on.

Work to protect against EMPs makes sense… but these upgrades shouldn’t distract from efforts to shore up defenses against more probable lines of attack, Cilluffo said.