After reading numerous reports from the Congressional EMP Commission, I figured that the reality of such a threat was a given. So when I recently wrote about making Faraday cages, imagine my surprise when I saw this comment:
I appreciate the attempt to help people prepare for all kinds of disasters, but I’m going to have to throw a conversational bomb into this room, so to speak.
EMP is a total scam. See here: https://www.lewrockwell.com/2018/02/david-hathaway/emp-hoax/
Not only is EMP a scam, nuclear weapons are probably a scam. Certainly they were at the time of abhorrent and immoral destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, both cities victimized by fire bombing like all the other Japanese cities.
I suppose protection against lightning might be useful, a system of lightning rods being an alternative. I wouldn’t lose sleep at night over this EMP nonsense, especially when there are real dangers we face every day.
I was really surprised to see this. I went to read the article at the link and discovered the author of it had written an entire book on the topic called EMP Hoax. The book had a forward written by Lew Rockwell, for whom I have the deepest respect. Mr. Rockwell wrote of a nuclear detonation over the Pacific Ocean in 1962:
One purpose of the blast was to study the impact, if any, of Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) effects. One incident is alleged to show such effects. Based on this incident, the government concluded that hostile powers could use EMPs to disable the electronic infrastructure of our country. Even after the Cold War ended, the government has continued to tout the threat posed by EMPs.
Hathaway comments: “The alleged incident happened on the island of Oahu which is made up of the City and County of Honolulu. This incident has developed a cult following within the EMP science community. The incident allegedly involved blown fuses in a small number (less than 1%) of street light strings. It has been trotted out for decades as the single definitive proof of EMP effects on power grid and long-wire infrastructure.”
Hathaway isn’t convinced. He presents a painstaking discussion of the incident, subsequent investigations, and the science behind EMP effects. He writes clearly about complicated science, and his conclusion is backed by abundant evidence: “EMP is a ridiculous notion; one that we are supposed to give up our money, our common sense, and our freedom to validate. From the state’s perspective, there is always some area of life where people haven’t yet developed the proper level of panic to make them tolerate the forced filling of state coffers in relation to that area. There is always something new to fear that the public can’t quite grasp without the government to ratchet up its fears.”
David Hathaway deserves our gratitude for his excellent and timely account of a little-known propaganda campaign by the State.” (source)
So with this in mind, I spent the weekend doing some research on the topic.
Some mainstream outlets concur that EMP is not a legitimate threat.
Vice interviewed an analyst from Stratfor about how concerned we should be about an EMP. The analyst was pretty thorough, and concluded that he believed it was “not impossible” but “unlikely.”
It’s not that EMPs are not a threat. It’s just that—although the effect would be massive—currently they’re not really a risk apart from nuclear strikes, so highlighting them as the greatest threat there is might not be entirely realistic…
…When we’re talking about realistic versus unrealistic threats, currently generating an EMP with a nuclear weapon is the most feasible way to do it. Homebuilt EMP weapons aren’t very feasible. The cost you would put into building such a system versus the benefit that you would actually gain is very, very impaired…
…Besides the weight, and the cost of whatever you use to generate that kind of electricity—a capacitor, a large amount of batteries, or whatever power generation method—the cost would be so high, but the damage you can do with it would be so limited, that other much cheaper methods might be more efficient when it comes to damaging the area that you’re targeting. (source)
Larry Kummer of FabiusMaximus.com believes the threat of EMP is pure propaganda and points out that the naysayers don’t get press but there are plenty of them out there. He wrote:
The threat of EMP’s has been debunked many times. But only in the back pages. Experts know that speaking against the fear narratives gets one blackballed from the defense gravy train and blacklisted by journalists. Only the threat mongers, the warmongers, get attention.
The Wall Street Journal shows how the propaganda narrative works. There is a large body of analysis showing that the EMP threat is grossly exaggerated, especially versus the serious ones we face. For details see these posts about EMPs: Electromagnetic Pulse Weapons, generating waves of fear in America for 20 years and Renowned Physicists Cast Doubt on Gingrich’s Far-Fetched Scenario about EMP weapons. None of this appears in the WSJ, who give only the warnings. Some examples…
“The EMP Threat“, editorial, 9 August 2008.
“What a Single Nuclear Warhead Could Do“, Brian T. Kennedy, op-ed, 24 November 2008 — “Why the U.S. needs a space-based missile defense against an EMP attack.” Kennedy is president of the right-wing Claremont Institute.
“How North Korea Could Cripple the U.S.“, R. James Woolsey & Peter Vincent Pry, op-ed, 21 May 2013 — “A single nuke exploded above America could cause a national blackout for months.” This op-ed accompanied Woolsey’s congressional testimony and new blitz. The WSJ ran a story about this the same day: “Former CIA Director Warns About Cyber Threats From North Korea“.
“The Growing Threat From an EMP Attack“, R. James Woolsey & Peter Vincent Pry, op-ed, August 2014 — “A nuclear device detonated above the U.S. could kill millions, and we’ve done almost nothing to prepare.” (source)
Then, Mr. Kummer rightly points out the threat of solar flares and other space weather events, which would wreak similar havoc to our electronics. He concludes, “Since natural threats don’t have anything like the military-industrial complex to shill for them, we remain vulnerable to events certain to occur eventually.”
Matthew Gault from War is Boring calls EMP an “overrated threat.” He interviewed cybersecurity expert Peter Singer, who had a LOT to say about his feeling that an EMP strike was unlikely. Here are some of the highlights from that interview.
“There’s this irony of the people who think it’s serious not realizing that they’re the joke,” he explained. “When you walk through the actual scenarios of use, it doesn’t pass the logic test.”
…Setting aside the geopolitical gymnastics that must occur to lead to that kind of exchange, if a foreign power detonated a 100 or more kiloton in an electromagnetic attack on America, then the world is at war and there’s little strategic benefit for the aggressor to not just go ahead and nuke a city.
“It doesn’t mean it can’t happen,” Singer told me. “But if the other side is using EMPs we’re moving into thermonuclear war.”
“A weapon of mass destruction is preferable to a weapon of mass disruption,” Butt explained. “A state would be highly unlikely to launch an EMP strike from their own territory because the rocket could be traced to the country of origin and would probably result in nuclear or massive conventional retaliation by the U.S.”
…However, we don’t know what the effects of an EMP might be. Studies conducted by both the Soviet Union and the United States during the Cold War produced dramatically different results every time.
An electromagnetic pulse is a highly unpredictable side effect of a predictably horrifying weapon. “It’s not a weapon we’ve seen past use of. Ever. Literally ever. Nor tests of,” Singer said. (source)
Patrick Disney of The Atlantic calls the hullabaloo a “campaign to terrify” us about the threat of an EMP and says it all goes back to the money trail of increased ballistic missile defenses. He believes the threat is unlikely to occur because of its unpredictable nature.
It may be that a terrorist, after going through the trouble of acquiring a nuclear warhead and a missile capable of delivering it to America’s shores, would be a fool to employ the ultimate weapon in such a cockamamie fashion. The effects of an EMP are far from universal; according to one commissioned study, a best-case scenario would impact 70 percent of electronics, while a worst-case estimate could be as low as 5 percent. Far better from the terrorist’s perspective to deliver the bomb as it was intended, rather than hang his hopes on a series of unpredictable events and second- or third-order consequences. After all, a nuclear bomb need not be made any more devastating to serve a terrorist’s purposes.
A slightly more plausible scenario could involve a state actor who, facing a vastly superior U.S. military massed on its border, might consider launching an EMP attack against U.S. troops as a way of evening the playing field. Because the U.S. military is much more highly dependent on technology than others, a rogue state facing the threat of invasion could conceivably attempt such a tactic against invading forces in the hopes that it could damage their capabilities without incurring the totally devastating retaliation that a “regular” nuclear strike would surely provoke. Of course, a wide-ranging EMP would knock out his own electronics as much as it would anyone else’s, so even this scenario is a bit far-fetched. (source)
These are all valid arguments. If a country or a group of terrorists acquired the nuclear capability to set off an EMP above America, would they do that even if they weren’t positive it would work? The retaliation if it didn’t work – heck, even if it DID work – would be formidable and thorough.
But all this doesn’t mean an EMP strike is impossible.
While it is possible we may be getting played by the fearmongers, it still doesn’t mean that a disaster that would take out our grid is impossible. It doesn’t mean that people who are preparing with Faraday cages and long-term supplies are being silly.
First of all, these preps will help us through a wide variety of disasters. The protected electronics would see us through a space weather event, and the other preps would help us through anything from World War 3 to a raging pandemic. I’ve mentioned my own plan to prep low-tech because it’s budget-friendly and it will get us through many different emergencies. There are all sorts of reasons the grid could be down for an extended period of time. Look no further than Puerto Rico to see that is a fact.
And furthermore, regarding an EMP, we simply don’t know what it would do because it has never happened.
I reached out to Dr. Arthur T. Bradley and asked him about his thoughts on whether an EMP was a legitimate threat or a gigantic hoax. Dr. Bradley is an electrical engineer at NASA and has done a lot of scholarly research on the possibilities of EMP and space weather events. He’s a prolific author and his book Disaster Preparedness for EMP Attacks and Solar Storms is a classic that belongs on every prepper’s bookshelf. (Find all of his books here.) Needless to say, Dr. Bradley is a pro and knows that of which he speaks.
Here’s his very thorough answer:
To address whether or not an EMP is a scam, we should first ask what it is we’re wanting to deny. An EMP is simply a broadband electromagnetic pulse. Such a pulse can be created by the sudden release of energy, such as a spark gap or on a larger scale, a bolt of lightning. Likewise, a very large explosion can release an EMP due to gamma rays ionizing nearby air molecules. EMPs from these events are well understood, and there are countless technical papers addressing the phenomenon. Even without expert confirmation, most people have experienced the phenomenon when their radio, phone, or TV suddenly “pops” when a bolt of lightning strikes nearby. Simply put, to say that “EMP is a scam” is to deny science.
The real question at hand is are the effects of a nuclear-generated EMP really as significant as people claim. The short answer to that is no one knows for sure. The US government observed EMPs during nuclear testing in the 60’s, such as during the Starfish experiments, and it was identified as a possible weapon to disrupt an enemy’s infrastructures. The Russians also did extensive EMP testing during the same period, including the Soviet Test 184 in 1962 that caused extensive damage on the ground, including destroying the Karaganda power plant.
The US Air Force later built a very large $60 million wooden structure, known as ATLAS-I (aka Trestle), to study how best to harden systems against an EMP. More recently, the government commissioned a group of technical experts to assess the nation’s vulnerabilities to such an attack.
This council was known as the EMP Commission and issued a Critical National Infrastructures Report in April of 2008. In it, the commission discussed in detail how the nation’s critical infrastructures and citizens could be disrupted by a high-altitude nuclear-generated EMP, and the feasibility of hardening military and civilian systems. The EMP Commission was later reestablished in 2006 to make specific recommendations on reducing our susceptibilities.
Their conclusion was that an EMP “has the capability to produce significant damage to critical infrastructures that support the fabric of U.S. society and the ability of the United States and Western nations to project influence and military power,” and “damage to or loss of these components could leave significant parts of the electric power grid out of service for months to a year or more.” The loss of electricity would lead to the subsequent disruption of every other infrastructure, including food and water distribution, telecommunications, banking, transportation, emergency services, government, and energy production.
Whether or not the commission’s assessments would prove accurate is impossible to say, since no country has ever suffered a wide-scale EMP attack. What can be said is that a group of highly-trained experts commissioned by the government came to some very dire conclusions about the effects of an EMP attack.
So can it happen? We have a very decisive agreement on “maybe.”
My own conclusion? Keep prepping.
After reading all of this, it’s pretty clear that nobody knows for sure whether an EMP attack is likely or would work as an enemy might hope. There is compelling evidence from both sides of the argument that leave us up in the air.
As a prepper who wants to be ready for everything, here’s my advice.
An EMP that takes the grid down indefinitely is only one possibility among many others that could cause a long-term power outage.
A horrible storm that damages the infrastructure as in Puerto Rico
A solar flare or other space weather event (scroll down to question 14)
A physical terrorist attack on the grid such as the one in California in 2013
A software bug caused a weeklong widespread power outage in the Northeast in 2003
The Derecho storm outage that took power out during the heat of summer in the Mid-Atlantic for 10 days
Almost 2000 people in the New York City metro area had no power for months after Hurricane Sandy
Selco has shared his story of living in a city that was blockaded and left without any utilities for an entire year.
So obviously, this isn’t an “it can never happen” scenario. Being ready for a long-term power outage and shutdown of the supply line is just common sense.
The twist of an EMP is that it would be longer-term and you can protect some of your devices from such an event. Faraday cages would also protect your electronics from a solar event. A Faraday cage is simple and inexpensive to make (learn how here) and the devices you would protect would be things that you would use anyway in certain types of emergencies, like communications devices, a backup laptop, and solar chargers. So, really, it isn’t costing you very much extra money to additionally make some preparations for the possibility that an EMP could occur.
As far as low-tech, off-grid systems, I think they’re a good idea for all sorts of reasons. Here are a few examples:
When I lived in the boondocks, I had no washing machine at my house. Having a backup way to do laundry helped me lengthen the time between my one-hour drive each way to the laundromat.
Having solar chargers and lights have been nothing but helpful in power-outage situations.
I yearn for solar panels on my roof to reduce my electric bill and decrease my dependence on public utilities.
California has had rolling power outages for years to manage the extra demand for power in the heat of summer – wouldn’t off-grid supplies make that more comfortable?
None of these preps are outrageous and most are very multipurpose. I think it’s very important to diversify your basic preps to see you through a wide variety of emergencies, and the potential (or lack thereof) of an EMP is no different.