In March, President Donald Trump signed an "Executive Order on Coordinating National Resilience to Electromagnetic Pulses," which many observers see as an important step in confronting an unconventional threat that could wreak havoc on the United States.
An electromagnetic pulse, or EMP, is an intense burst of energy that can be released by a nuclear weapon detonated high in the atmosphere, or by a geomagnetic disturbance caused by natural phenomena such as solar flares.
Consider this scenario that some analysts have envisioned: An electromagnetic pulse hits the nation's electric grid. The power goes out across a large swath of the country, communication systems and other critical infrastructure are disrupted, military readiness is degraded, chaos ensues and many people die.
That is a nightmare situation that the U.S. government is making a new concerted push to avoid.
"It is the policy of the United States to prepare for the effects of EMPs through targeted approaches that coordinate whole-of-government activities and encourage private sector engagement," Trump's directive stated.
The federal government must provide warning; protect against, respond to and recover from the effects of electromagnetic pulses through planning, investment and stakeholder engagement; and prevent EMP attacks through deterrence, defensive capabilities and nuclear nonproliferation efforts, the order said. It called for prioritizing research and development to address the needs of critical infrastructure stakeholders, and implementing pilot programs.
The executive order provided a list of implementation instructions to the Departments of Homeland Security, Defense, Energy, Commerce and State, and the Director of National Intelligence. It also put the assistant to the president for national security affairs and the National Security Council in charge of coordinating the executive branch's efforts.
For years, experts and advocacy groups have been sounding the alarm about the possibility of a far-reaching, disastrous incident.
"An electromagnetic pulse... poses a direct threat to the U.S. electric grid and the products, services and activities that depend on access to electricity," Heritage Foundation analysts warned in a policy paper published last year titled, "The Danger of EMP Requires Innovative and Strategic Action."
"An EMP could cause widespread failure of the electric grids of entire regions, grinding the U.S. economy to a halt," the authors added. "Without electricity, almost nothing will work, which means that millions of people will die as a result of not being able to refill medical prescriptions, millions more will be without food, and predictable rioting and looting can quickly create a state of anarchy."
A loss of electric...