An Electromagnetic Pulse Attack (EMP) is something that’s often mentioned in the context of Hollywood Sci-Fi Films, but very little attention is ever given to the real-world implications of this threat. While the chances of an attack may be small, there are a growing number of countries who now possess the ability to launch an EMP attack, and the consequences are far too catastrophic to ignore.
What is an EMP?
An Electromagnetic Pulse is a broad term that can cover both natural and man-made events that would cause a burst of electromagnetic energy, but for the purposes of this article, we will be looking at the most dangerous types of EMPs, nuclear electromagnetic pulses (NEMP) and high altitude nuclear EMPs (HEMP).
A nuclear electromagnetic pulse attack is a burst of Electromagnetic radiation that occurs following the detonation of a nuclear weapon. While this type of attack would cause serious trouble for any country targeted by this kind of weaponry, in the classical sense of an EMP attack we are not talking about the stereotypical imagery of a mushroom cloud followed by a wave of destruction. No, an EMP attack doesn’t target a landmass but instead targets the air over a country.
The real danger comes from a nuclear weapon known as a high-altitude electromagnetic pulse (HEMP) device. Depending on the location of the detonation, and how powerful the device is, the effects of a HEMP would cause catastrophic damage to a country’s power grid and communications infrastructure.
Our Dependence on the Grid: What would happen if it all crashed?
We live in a world that’s become incredibly dependent on electricity, so much so that the average person would be hard-pressed to survive for more than a couple weeks without it.
We’ve all seen it on a small-scale: The panic and chaos following a power outage.
Events like hurricanes, earthquakes, or even small seasonal storms give us a little glimpse into the chaos that can happen when our power grid goes down. From the food you buy at the local grocery store to the money sitting in your bank account, almost everything you do has become intertwined with a complex electronics-driven infrastructure.
Time and time again we witness people panicking as a storm bears down on their region; rushing to the store to buy last minute supplies, only to realize 99% of their community was just as unprepared and are now panicking inside an empty grocery store with nothing to bring home to their family. Once the disaster passes and the storm wreak havoc on the local grid, we often see a huge spike in home invasions, robberies, and in some cases even rioting and looting.
Keep in mind; those are the things that happen during short-term grid-down situations; what do you think is going to happen should the grid go down for weeks, months, or even years? Think that it can’t happen? Well that’s exactly what could happen after an EMP attack, our grid could go down for months at best, but more likely, the attack would cause irreparable damage to our infrastructure.
The History of EMPs: It’s not just Science Fiction!
During the early days of nuclear testing, experts suspected that a nuclear blast could damage electrical equipment, so they took steps to shield electronics near the testing sites. What they didn’t know, and soon found out, was how powerful an EMP could be and how they were creating a weapon that could someday take out power grids throughout the world.
Despite shielding electrical equipment, tests during the 1940s and 50s often fried gear around the test sites. In fact, during the first United States nuclear test on July 16, 1945, the recording equipment was all damaged due to low-level EMP effects. But the real threat wasn’t realized until April of 1958 when the U.S. government conducted the first high-altitude EMP test at the Yucca Flat Nuclear Test Site in Nevada.
According to the recently declassified data published in the final report of Operation HARDTACK, YUCCA provided the first proof that high-altitude EMPs could be more than 1000 times as intense as a low-altitude EMP.
Starfish Prime EMP Test
While the 1958 Yucca EMP test gave nuclear experts their first glimpse of what a high-altitude EMP could do, it wasn’t until 1962 that experts realized they were dealing with a much larger power than they ever suspected.
On July 9, 1962, the U.S. government carried out the Starfish Prime high-altitude nuclear test, detonating a 1.44 megaton nuclear bomb 240 miles above the Pacific Ocean. Moments after detonation, the EMP threat became apparent.
Almost 900 miles away from the blast site, hundreds of street lights went out in Hawaii, and widespread telephone outages blanketed the region. Airplanes experienced electrical surges, radio blackouts spread throughout the area, and at least six satellites failed due to the Starfish Prime pulse.
Actual Video from the Starfish Prime Detonation
Soviet Project K nuclear tests: Test 184
Around the same time the U.S. government was conducting the Operation Fishbowl tests, the Soviet Union was conducting their own nuclear tests. In 1962, they conducted three EMP-producing nuclear tests over Kazakhstan. The bombs were much smaller than Starfish Prime, but unlike the U.S. tests, these were conducted over a populated area.
Not much is known about what happened during these tests, but when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, reports were found that showed widespread damage to telephone lines in the area, surges in underground power lines that caused a fire at a power plant, and significant damage to ceramic insulators on overhead electrical power lines.
So What Effects Would an EMP have on our Power Grid?
Well, to be honest, I don’t think anyone really knows; a lot of this is still scientific theory. The U.S. government has never fully released their findings on any of these tests, and it is possible that they don’t even fully understand what would happen if one of these devices was set off over a large populated area.
Here’s what we do know:
In 2005, Dr. Peter Vincent Pry, a member of the United States EMP Commission, gave written testimony to Congress. In that testimony, he referenced scientific research from governments around the world who were studying how they could use EMPs as a form of electronic warfare. According to the Testimony:
Chinese Military Research on Using an EMP
Chinese military writings are replete with references to the dependency of United States military forces and civilian infrastructure upon sophisticated electronic systems, and to the potential vulnerability of those systems.
For example, consider this quote from an official newspaper of the PLA:
“Some people might think that things similar to the ‘Pearl Harbor Incident’ are unlikely to take place during the information age. Yet it could be regarded as the ‘Pearl Harbor Incident’ of the 21st century if a surprise attack is conducted against the enemy’s crucial information systems of command, control, and communications by such means as…electromagnetic pulse weapons….Even a superpower like the United States, which possesses nuclear missiles and powerful armed forces, cannot guarantee its immunity…In their own words, a highly computerized open society like the United States is extremely vulnerable to electronic attacks from all sides. This is because the U.S. economy, from banks to telephone systems and from power plants to iron and steel works, relies entirely on computer networks….When a country grows increasingly powerful economically and technologically…it will become increasingly dependent on modern information systems….The United States is more vulnerable to attacks than any other country in the world.” (Zhang Shouqi and Sun Xuegui, Jiefangjun Bao 14 May 1996)
Russian Military Research on Using an EMP
Russian military writings are also replete with references to the dependency of United States military forces and civilian infrastructure upon sophisticated electronic systems, and to the potential vulnerability of those systems. Indeed, Russia made a thinly veiled EMP threat against the United States on May 2, 1999.
During the spring of 1999, tensions between the United States and Russia rose sharply over Operation ALLIED FORCE, the NATO bombing campaign against Yugoslavia. A bipartisan delegation from the House Armed Services Committee of the U.S. Congress met in Vienna with their Russian counterparts on the Duma International Affairs Committee, headed by Chairman Vladimir Lukin. The object of the meeting was to reduce U.S. – Russia tensions and seek Russian help in resolving the Balkans crisis.
During the meeting, Chairman Lukin and Deputy Chairman Alexander Shaponov chastised the United States for military aggression in the Balkans, and warned that Russia was not helpless to oppose Operation ALLIED FORCE: “Hypothetically, if Russia really wanted to hurt the United States in retaliation for NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia, Russia could fire a submarine launched ballistic missile and detonate a single nuclear warhead at high-altitude over the United States. The resulting electromagnetic pulse would massively disrupt U.S. communications and computer systems, shutting down everything.” (HASC Transcript On Vienna Conference, 2 May 1999)
In the 1980s, an article ran in Science magazine detailing how easy it would be for a rogue nation to launch an EMP attack.
In the June 12, 1981, issue of Science Magazine, in an article titled “Nuclear Pulse (III): Playing a Wild Card” by William J. Broad, the author warned:
“The United States is frequently crossed by picture-taking Cosmos series satellites that orbit at a height of 200 to 450 kilometers above the earth. Just one of these satellites, carrying a few pounds of enriched plutonium instead of a camera, might touch off instant coast-to-coast pandemonium: the U.S. power grid going out, all electrical appliances without a separate power supply (televisions, radios, computers, traffic lights) shutting down, commercial telephone lines going dead, special military channels barely working or quickly going silent.”
While history may have forgotten that warning, the threat highlighted by Broad’s article is even more worrisome today. With so many nations now possessing the technology to launch satellites into space, an EMP attack is far more likely today that it was back in the 1980s — and thanks to our complete reliance on the grid, the damage would be much worse.
The Complete destruction of our power grid: How Serious is the Threat?
The threat is being taken so seriously, that last year the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) reopened parts of the infamous doomsday bunker deep inside Colorado’s Cheyenne Mountain Complex.
According to Peter Fry, executive director of the EMP Task Force, a bipartisan congressional commission, the federal government has invested around $700 million to completely upgrade the electronics equipment inside Colorado’s Cheyenne Mountain Complex. It’s thought the bunker, which was built to withstand a nuclear attack, should be able to survive an EMP attack.
Pry warned that the U.S. is incredibly vulnerable to a missile fired into space from a southerly route.
“The grid is utterly unprotected from an EMP attack. It’s not adequately protected from cyber or physical sabotage,” Pry said in an interview with Fox News. “It’s why North Korea and Iran want the bomb, have the bomb. North Korea has actually practiced this against the United States.”
“What it could do, these various threats, is black out the U.S. electric grid for a protracted period of months or years,” warned Pry, “Nine out of ten Americans could die from starvation, disease and societal collapse, if the blackout lasted a year.”
What would happen after an EMP attack?
When most experts talk about the consequences, you will often hear them say things like “an EMP attack would send us back to the 19th century.” While they are right about that on some levels, what they fail to consider is how much knowledge we’ve lost since that time.
Today’s society is completely unprepared to live in a 19th-century environment. The skills our forefathers had have been long forgotten, replaced by useless knowledge like how to tweet random celebrity gossip and how to text using a language that looks like something a toddler would use.
In my opinion, a better analogy might be the medieval times; but then again, even people of that time had more practical survival skills than today’s generation.
Nightmare Scenario: What to expect in the aftermath of an EMP attack.
The complete destruction of our power grid: An EMP attack would likely take down large portions of the nation’s power grid, possibly even the entire system.
- Most of your electronics could be damaged, if not they will likely become useless without electricity.
- Expect long-term outages that will last for months, possibly even years. Most of our electrical equipment is now made overseas, and damaged power transformers could take years to repair fully.
- No more electronic payments. You need to have cash on hand, but also be aware that even cash will quickly lose value as most modern day commerce is conducted over computer networks.
Chaos in the streets: Once people realize what happened, there is going to be a mass panic. Most people have less than a three day supply of food and water in their homes, and most people will be lost without the ability to power their homes.
- Be prepared for rioting and looting.
- Be prepared for a huge spike in crime, especially robberies and home invasions.
- Be prepared to defend your home and your supplies.
Martial Law: Once the chaos breaks out, the government will likely declare a state of emergency or martial law.
- Expect to lose most of your constitutional so rights.
- Expect the government to suspend the 2nd amendment and possibly even the confiscation of firearms.
- Expect travel restrictions and nationwide curfews.
How to Prepare for a long-term EMP Grid Down Crisis
In my book, The Ultimate Situational Survival Guide, I devote a lot of time to this specific topic. Our government has no real contingency plan to deal with problems related to our nation’s power grid. You need to be prepared to survive an extended period of time without power, without access to food and water, and without essential services.
Start Thinking about what Emergency Supplies you cannot live without!
- Unless you have a self-contained well, chances are you are going to lose your ability to get fresh clean water. Most municipal water supplies need a constant power supply to treat and pump water. Stock up on long-term food and water.
- Stock up on things like Emergency Flashlights, candles, and gear that you would use during normal power outages.
- If you live in an urban area, check out these essential Urban Survival Tools.
- Seal electronics equipment in EMP Protection Bags.
Make sure you can support yourself and your family!
After an EMP attack, you are going to need a whole new set of skills to survive.
- Start with these 32 self-reliance resources and skills that you need to know.
- Then make sure you know these 27 Essential Preparedness Tips, Skills, and Resources.
- If all hell breaks lose in your area, having a well thought out evacuation strategy could be a lifesaver. Remember, gas stations rely on the power grid; once that grid goes down those who don’t have gas will not be able to find it. Check out our resource guide for creating a Bugout Plan.
You need to be able to protect your Family from Criminals!
Security is going to become one of your top concerns during an EMP attack. You need to start thinking about how you are going to protect yourself, your family, your supplies, and your home.
- The Pros & Cons of Gun Ownership
- Tips for Buying your First Gun
- Stress Response Training: The missing ingredient in Firearms Training
You need a way to generate your own power!
Solar Chargers, power generators, and portable battery backups are all things you need to invest in. Even if an EMP never hits, these tools are all valuable pieces of gear that can help during any grid-down emergency. For a very small amount of money, you can help ensure your ability to run things like emergency radios, ham radios, tablets, flashlights and other emergency gear.
Have a way to communicate once the grid goes down!
When the power lines go down and the internet stops working, you’re going to need a good communication plan in place. Having an Emergency Communication plan will allow you to send and receive critical emergency information.