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Ultimate Cyber Threat: EMP to Produce Catastrophic Damage to Infrastructure

Electronic components essential to modern society — from computer networks to industrial controls to aircraft avionics — remain highly vulnerable to electromagnetic pulse strikes, and security experts told Congress last week EMP can be used as a form of cyber warfare.

“While not often considered in tandem, it is more correct to consider EMP vulnerabilities as one end of a continuous spectrum of cyber threats to our electronic based infrastructures,” Michael J. Frankel, a theoretical physicist and specialist on nuclear EMP, told a House hearing May 8.

“They share both an overlap in the effects produced – the failure of electronic systems to perform their function and possibly incurring actual physical damage – as well as their mode of inflicting damage.”

Electromagnetic pulse is both naturally occurring from solar flare and man-made from both nuclear and non-nuclear devices. Its effects on electronics were first revealed in the 1960s after atmospheric nuclear test blast were found to disrupt electronics for hundreds of miles.

EMP is a super-energetic radio wave that destroys, damages, or causes malfunctions of electronic systems by overloading circuits. Harmless to humans, EMP is capable of causing mass destruction of both property and life as 21st Century society has grown highly dependent on vulnerable electronic systems, a panel of experts testified before the House Homeland Security subcommittee on cybersecurity and infrastructure protection May 8.

Frankel said regards a future EMP event as a certainty. “I think that the likelihood that the U.S. will face at some point a single massive solar storm and thus our entire system will be under the footprint, if you will, of a massive solar storm, is about 100 percent,” he said.

“It will happen. It could happen next year; could be 100 years. But probably not a thousand years.”

A nuclear EMP attack, however, is unknown. “I don’t call it high; I don’t call it low,” Frankel said. “I would say it’s an unknown probability.”

Cyber and EMP strikes both disrupt through electronic connections by pressing unwanted voltages and currents through wires. Most cyber attacks involve digital information like malicious code that causes unwanted and unexpected actions.

“In the EMP case, the impressed signal does not contain coded information,” Frankel said. “It is merely a dump of random noise which may flip bit states, or damage components, and also ensures the system will not behave in the way the owner expects. This electronic noise dump may thus be thought of as a ‘stupid cyber.’”

Frankel urged lawmakers to consider EMP hardening at the same time government is seeking to counter cyber vulnerabilities in critical infrastructure.

“It is important that we not neglect the EMP end of the cyber threat spectrum,” he said.

Frankel also warned that the U.S. electrical grid will become more vulnerable as part of the current upgrading to highly digitized smart grid technology. Protecting the electrical grid from cyber attacks should include electronic hardening against EMP.

“Cyber and EMP threats have the unique capability to precipitate highly multiple failures of these many new control systems over a widely distributed geographical area, and such simultaneous failures … are likely to signal a wider and more long lasting catastrophe,” he said.

Peter Pry, a specialist on EMP who took part in an early 2000s commission on the EMP threat, also testified at the House hearing on the dangers of disruptive electronic attacks from nuclear blasts and what he terms EMP “superweapons.”

A 1-kiloton nuclear blast detonated 18 miles over U.S. territory would destroy all electrical systems in an area the size of New England, Pry testified.

Natural EMP is caused by solar geomagnetic super storms, like the 1859 Carrington Event, that caused widespread telegraph failures, and the 1921 Railroad Storm, that caused electrical disruptions in developed, areas.

Today, with modern circuitry, Pry said society’s current electronic infrastructure is 1 million times more vulnerable to EMP those as recently as the 1960s.

Pry said North Korea in 2013 carried out what appeared to be an EMP exercise, orbiting a satellite over U.S. territory in a manner similar to a known Soviet-era practice by Moscow of a high-altitude EMP burst.

Both natural and nuclear EMP “are both existential threats that could kill 9 of 10 Americans through starvation, disease, and societal collapse,” Pry warned.

A solar EMP event would black out the national electrical grid for months or years, and collapse critical infrastructures such as communications, transportation, banking and finance, food and water –all vital to sustaining modern society.

The biggest threat, according to Pry, is the danger of a large-scale nuclear detonation intended as an EMP attack that would cause limited ground damage but catastrophic electronic disruptions.

“In a nuclear EMP, it has an electromagnetic shockwave that we call E1,” Pry said. “This can couple into personal computers, automobiles and the like. And so you’ll have deeper societal damage.”

In a worst-case detonation of a super EMP weapon, a device Pry said is believed to be part of the nuclear arsenals of Russia, China and probably North Korea, “then you’re talking about a scenario where you are having massive deep damage to personal computers and refrigerators and lights and the rest.” Recent studies have confirmed the existence of electronic vulnerabilities within small and more efficient electronics to EMP.

Pry highlighted the strategic vulnerability to EMP attack by extra high voltage transformers that are a key element of the electronic power transmission grid.

These transformers would be destroyed in an EMP event and are difficult and costly to replace. The United States currently does not manufacture the transformers and they must be imported from either South Korea or Germany.

“The loss of large numbers of extra high voltage transformers to an EMP event would plunge the United States into a protracted blackout lasting years, with perhaps no hope of eventual recovery, as the society and population probably could not survive for even one year without electricity,” Pry said in prepared testimony.

Several states are developing non-nuclear EMP weapons but so far such devices have limited capabilities for electronic disruption to relatively small areas, an area less than a square mile.

However, EMP weapons deployed on drones, aircraft, ships, submarine and ground vehicles could become future cyber warfare weaponry.

For space warfare, satellites that form the backbone of both the national security and commercial infrastructure could be destroyed or disrupted by EMP strikes or EMP weapons in space.

“Given our current state of unpreparedness, a natural or nuclear EMP event could create anarchic conditions that would profoundly challenge the existence of social order,” Pry said.