Strategy for Protecting and Preparing the Homeland Against Threats from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) and Geomagnetic Disturbance (GMD)

On October 9, 2018, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security [DHS] released a new strategy designed to address the threats posed by electromagnetic incidents. DHS assesses that such an incident could be “potentially catastrophic” and as such, has released this strategy to protect the critical infrastructure in the United States.

The two types of electromagnetic incidents identified as threats by DHS are electromagnetic pulses (EMP) and geomagnetic disturbances (GMD). According to DHS, intentional attacks with “high-altitude nuclear detonations, specialized conventional munitions, or non-nuclear directed energy devices” cause EMPs. By contrast, GMDs are naturally associated with solar coronal mass ejections, described as “when
plasma from the sun, with its embedded magnetic field, arrives at Earth.” Both can cause widespread effects on critical infrastructure.

In the Introduction to the strategy, DHS describes that the effects of EMPs,

vary in scale from highly local to regional to continental, depending upon the specific characteristics of the weapon and the attack profile. High-altitude electromagnetic pulse attacks (HEMP) using nuclear weapons are of most concern because they may permanently damage or disable large sections of the national electric grid and other critical infrastructure control systems.

Though GMDs are naturally occurring, DHS describes them as having similar effects to EMPs, including “widespread and long-lasting damage to electric power systems, satellites, electronic navigation systems, and undersea cables.” DHS notes that,

Essentially, any electronics system that is not protected against extreme EMP or GMD events may be subject to either the direct “shock” of the blast itself or to the damage that is inflicted on the systems and controls upon which they are dependent.

As such, DHS created a national strategy addressing the threat posed by both of these events, one which would articulate a “holistic, long-term, partnership-based approach to confronting this challenge.” The overarching goal of the strategy was to “improve the Department’s understanding of electromagnetic threats and hazards and inform efforts to increase national preparedness for any electromagnetic incident.” In addition to this goal, the three specific goals included in the strategy are:

  1. Improve risk awareness of electromagnetic threats and hazards;
  2. Enhance capabilities to protect critical infrastructure; and
  3. Promote effective electromagnetic-incident response and recovery efforts.

Organizationally, the national strategy is broken into five distinct parts: an introduction, three goals, and appendices. The Introduction includes sections on mandate and scope of the report, background on electromagnetic incidents, summary and implementation of the strategy itself, and acknowledgements. The three aforementioned goals are focused on highlighting the risk of electromagnetic events, assessing the current state of US infrastructure and its vulnerabilities to such incidents, and considering the response options to such incidents should they transpire. The last section contains one appendix with technical background on EMPs, GMDs, and their effects.

In addition to the national strategy, DHS stated that it is currently developing an Implementation Plan, which will,

include measures that enable DHS to evaluate progress toward addressing identified capability gaps. Together, the Strategy and its companion Implementation Plan will improve the Department’s management oversight and optimize resource utilization for our EMP/GMD protection, response, and recovery activities.

DHS has also indicated that it plans to “review and update the EMP/GMD Strategy, as needed, and regularly assess the Department’s progress on the Implementation Plan.”

More resources about electromagnetic incidents, electromagnetic pulses, and geomagnetic disturbances can be found in the Homeland Security Digital Library.

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