UPDATE 2018-12-09: all updates moved to the bottom.
This post provides a selection of resources on Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) threats. (Note: I’m neither a physicist nor electrical engineer and hence have nothing useful to say about EMP myself. Be wary of any person who makes claims to knowledge about EMP threats w/o citing sources and w/o having relevant authority, such as a degree in said disciplines.)
In 1990, the Engineering and Design – Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) and Tempest Protection for Facilities document was published; it focuses on U.S. government facilities.
Between 2001 and 2010 (and still?), the U.S. had an EMP Commission — excellent resource, providing e.g. the Report of the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack (53MB .pdf, April 2008, 208 pages) + Executive Report (.pdf, 2004 (note — it’s dated four years earlier than the current version of the main report), 62 pages)
In 2006, the Washington State Department of Health published a factsheet about EMP.
In 2008, the Congressional Research Service published a report on High Altitude Electromagnetic Pulse (HEMP) and High Power Microwave (HPM) Devices: Threat Assessment” (.pdf) (recommended read).
In 2009, there was a discussion on a forum for pilots about a New Scientist article that argued that a commercial aircraft could be brought down by DIY EMP bombs. Also in 2009, the U.S. Patent Application for an Electromagnetic pulse (EMP) hardened information infrastructure was filed.
In 2010, Business Insider had an article “Gauging The Threat Of An Electro-Magnetic Pulse Attack In The US“.
In February 2012, the U.K. Defence Committee published the report Developing Threats: Electro-Magnetic Pulses (EMP). It refers to statements made by the U.S. EMP Commission.
In April 2012, the U.K. report, or rather this Telegraph news article about it, led to Parliamentary questions (.pdf) in the Netherlands. In response to those questions, Dutch Secretary of Defense Hans Hillen stated that he sees the EMP threat as “low” for the Netherlands. Here is my (unofficial) translation of the actual questions & answers:
- Are you aware of the article “Britain at risk from ‘GoldenEye’ electromagnetic pulse attack from space, MPs warn“?Yes.
- Do you still support your relativistic perspective on the threat of EMP that you expressing during the debate on the policy letter “Defence after the credit crisis: a smaller force in a troubled world” on June 6th 2011, in which you suggested that EMP is a remnant of the Cold War, that the EMP instrument is not practically applicable and that the threat can be considered to be low for the Netherlands?Yes, I consider this threat to be low. Also see the answers to questions 4 and 5.
- If so, how do you interpret the warning from the British Defence commission, which contradicts your vision, about the big risks for British national security? Are you aware that also the U.S. EMP commission and several leading U.S. politicians have warned of the great dangers of an EMP attack earlier?I have taken note of the report of the British Defence commission and the references therein to rulings of the U.S. EMP commission and U.S. politicians. The information that is available to me gives me no reason to change my position. Also see the answers to questions 4 and 5.
- How do you assess the specific comments of the President of the British Defence committee, James Arbuthnot, about the probability of an EMP attack considering that it is a convenient way to use a small number of nuclear weapons to create a large devastating effect?An electromagnetic pulse caused by a nuclear explosion can disrupt or destroy unprotected electronic systems by burning out electronic circuits. To create a nuclear EMP attack that has the greatest possible effect, an explosion of a nuclear weapon at several hundred kilometers height is necessary. This requires a launch vehicle that is only at the disposal of States. The Dutch intelligence services assess the likelihood of a nuclear EMP attack as low.
- Do you, like the British parliamentarians, see major risks in the possibility for terrorists to build a primitive non-nuclear EMP weapon that is devastating on a smaller scale? If not, why?It is possible to build small, improvised non-nuclear EMP-weapons using commercially available componnents. The area in which such a weapon can cause damage, however, is small. The impact of a terrorist attack using an improvised EMP-weapon is, therefore, comparable to that of an attack using a conventional explosive. The main objective of such terrorist attacks is to frighten the population, more than causing damage itself. Prevention is the appropriate protection against such attacks.
- What do you think of the criticism of the British Defence Committee that the British Ministry of Defence is unwilling to take these threats seriously? Do you see a similar situation in the Netherlands? If not, why?
- What do you think of the advice of the British Defence committee that the U.K. ough to immediately protect its critical infrastructure against EMP attacks?I abstain from commenting on the specific British situation. The Dutch intelligence services monitor the proliferation of nuclear weapons. In addition, the terrorist threat is monitored by the National Coordinator for Counterterrorism (NCTV). The Parliament is informed quarterly about developments about this through the Terrorist Threat Assessment Netherlands.
- Can you support with financial data your earlier claims that protection of critical infrastructure against EMP carries “enormous costs” with it? If not, why?Given the amount of electronic systems, their applications and the scope of potential measures, the costs of protection will be very high. Considering the answers to the previous questions, I foresee that establishing a detailed estimate will require a disproportionate effort.
- Are you willing to promote that an interdepartmental working group is formed to make inventory of the dangers of EMP for the Netherlands and advise about the possibilities to protect the Dutch critical infrastructure against the consequences of EMP? If not, why?I don’t see the need for this.
Other informative resources:
- Susceptibility of some electronic equipment to HPEM threats ($), August 2004, D. Nitsch et al. (US Armed Forces)
- Electromagnetic Pulse Threats in 2010, November 2005, Colin R. Miller (USAF)
- U.S. Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Maryland) page on Electromagnetic Pulse, May 2006
- EMP: A National-Scale Threat to the U.S. Infrastructure, April 2007, George H. Baker, The Critical Infrastructure Protection Report
- Slides on Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) (.pdf), April 2009, Joe St Sauver
- The EMP threat: fact, fiction, and response (part 1), January 2010, Yousaf M. Butt, The Space Review
- The EMP threat: fact, fiction, and response (part 2), February 2010, Yousaf M. Butt, The Space Review
- Improvised EMP Devices [Part 1]: Possibilities and Realities, October 2011, Vera Knutsdottir, Defense Media Network
- Improvised EMP Devices [Part 2]: Enabling Technologies and Skills, October 2011, Vera Knutsdottir, Defense Media Network
- Improvised EMP Devices [Part 3]: Operational Concepts and Targets, November 2011, Vera Knutsdottir, Defense Media Network
- Improvised EMP Devices [Part 4]: Weapons Effects and Countermeasures, November 2011, Vera Knutsdottir, Defense Media Network
- Risk-Based Critical Infrastructure Priorities for EMP and Solar Storms, 2011, George H. Baker, Security Analysis and Risk Management Association Newsletter
UPDATES (new to old)
UPDATE 2020-06-18: Everything I’ve learned about solar storm risk and EMP attacks (Chris Said. Note: like me, Said is not an EE or physicist expert, just a person who took a non-professional interest in this theme. He states: “I read congressional testimony, think tank technical reports, a book, academic papers, insurance company assessments, several industry technical reports, and multiple reports in the trade media. What I found was at times contradictory. Somewhat troublingly, both sides of the issue accused each other of bias from financial incentives. Overall, my view is that while some of the EMP and solar storm risk is overhyped, it remains a serious issue, and one of the main tail risks we should be preparing for.”)
UPDATE 2019-08-22: The Real Threat Posed by EMPs (The Cipher Brief)
UPDATE 2019-03-26: White House issues Executive Order on Coordinating National Resilience to Electromagnetic Pulses (EMPs)
UPDATE 2018-11-xx: new report (.pdf, 69 pages; mirror) from the U.S. DoD Electromagnetic Defense Task Force, by Maj David Stuckenberg, Amb. R. James Woolsey, Col Douglas DeMaio; edited by Dr. Ernest Allan Rockwell.
UPDATE 2018-03-21: Strategic Primer on Electromagnetic Threats, by the American Foreign Policy Council (AFPC; a conservative non-profit U.S. foreign policy think tank)
UPDATE 2017-10-01: Dutch article explaining what North Korea could achieve through h-bombs (note: not related to EMP)
UPDATE 2017-09-04: Understanding North Korea’s EMP threat to the U.S. (Dennis Santiago, Huffington Post)
UPDATE 2017-05-03: A North Korean Nuclear EMP Attack? … Unlikely (blogpost by Jack Liu, U.S. Korea Institute at SAIS)
UPDATE 2016-03-19: comment from Winn Schwartau in response to a YouTube-video on EMP posted on LinkedIn: “There is actually a reasonable solution to terrestrial effects of CME that every decent EE should intuitively understand. It’s a fundamental analogue outgrowth of Time Based Security, applying the math and Just Fricking Doing It. Oy. Satellites are toast, but we CAN keep the majority of the lights on. When someone really gives an IT… let me know. (No offense… but so tired of the ignorance, apathy and arrogance that was as is still endemic to The Entire Security Industry.”
UPDATE 2015-06-10: Ex-CIA Director: We’re Not Doing Nearly Enough To Protect Against the EMP Threat (Slashdot)
UPDATE 2015-02-xx: Electromagnetic Pulses (EMPs): Myths vs. Facts (.pdf, factsheet by the Edison Electrical Institute)
UPDATE 2014-10-22: Countering Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Threats (.pdf, slides by US Ambassador Henry F. Cooper, Chairman of High Frontier)
UPDATE 2014-09-15: EMP, Debunked: The Jolt That Could Fry The Cloud (John Barnes, article in Information Week)
UPDATE 2014-05-08: Electromagnetic Pulse: Threat to Critical Infrastructure (.pdf, testimony by dr. Peter Vincent Pry given before the US House Committee on Homeland Security, Subcommittee on Cybersecurity, Infrastructure Protection and Security Technologies. Pry is executive director of the Task Force on National and Homeland Security, a Congressional advisory board.)
UPDATE 2014-04-xx: Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP): An Overview of Threats and Mitigation Solutions for Operations Centers and Substations (.pdf, slides by Michael A. Caruso presented at 2014 Int’l Conference of Doble Clients)
UPDATE 2013-08-27: Protecting America Against “Permanent Continental Shutdown” From Electro-Magnetic Pulse Events (.pdf, slides by Chuck Manto of the InfraGard National Electromagnetic Pulse Special Interest Group, presented at Idaho National Laboratories)
UPDATE 2013-10-xx: Terminal Blackout: Critical Electric Infrastructure Vulnerabilities and Civil-Military Resiliency (.pdf, paper by Ayers & Chrosniak, US Army War College CSLD)
UPDATE 2012-07-30: EU FP7 project, 2012-2015: STRUCTURES, Strategies for Improvement of Critical Infrastructure Resilience to EM Attacks
UPDATE 2012-07-21: 1975 Introduction to Explosive Magnetic Flux Compression Generatos by Los Alamos (.pdf, document from the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory. Via Cryptocomb).
UPDATE 2011-xx-xx: EMP myths (by Jerry Emanuelson, B.S.E.E.), appendix from Oak Ridge National Laboratories/Metatech EMP Report.