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Do you remember all the Doomsday folks setting up shelters and supplies to last through the Y2K meltdown … the one that didn’t happen? Well, now we have another group, this time consisting of four individuals, each willing to spend $7 million in preparation for the EMP (electromagnetic pulse) catastrophe that they expect from sunspot eruptions … see “Doomsday set prepares for end in luxurious missile silo” at http://now.msn.com/now/0409-luxury-condos-in-abandoned-missile-silo.aspx [1] They must have read William Forstchen’s book, One Second After, with its foreword by Newt Gingrich, which I discussed in a couple of earlier BlogInfoSec columns. The book relates the total disaster resulting from a purposeful EMP attack versus one emanating from natural causes, although the outcomes could be comparable.

In any event, I was reminded that I had worked on a column on the topic a few months back, but hadn’t published it. The title of the column was “EMP Now a Political Issue” and it went like this:

I was somewhat surprised to see in a front-page article, “Among Gingrich’s Passions, A Doomsday Vision,” in the  December 12, 2011 New York Times  by William J. Broad, that Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich is raising the issue of the potential impact of an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack to the top of his agenda … see http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/12/us/politics/gingrichs-electromagnetic-pulse-warning-has-skeptics.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all [2]  I wouldn’t have been so surprised had I remembered that Gingrich wrote the foreword to the William R. Forstchen book, One Second After, which I discussed two years ago in my December 28, 2009 column, “EMP (Electromagnetic Pulse) – Yet Another Critical Infrastructure Concern.”
I happen to share Gingrich’s concerns with respect to the possible result of an EMP event, but don’t believe that trying to prevent enemies from achieving the capability to launch such an EMP attack is the total answer, if in fact it is an answer at all. Destructive EMPs have been shown to result from natural phenomena, such as high levels of sun spot activity, or potentially from nuclear accidents or, if we are to believe Dan Brown in his novel, The Lost Symbol, by an electromagnetic-pulse-generating weapon mounted on a helicopter. Sunspot activity is clearly not controllable and the risks of accidental explosions can be mitigated but not eliminated. I’m not saying that such an accident is even possible, I just don’t know—nor am I sure that anyone else does.

After the catastrophes at the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear plants, it is clear that, given a particular confluence of events, accidents could occur with the potential of generating electromagnetic radiation. However, I do think that there should be equal time for protection and avoidance as well as or instead of attempting preemptive prevention.

When it comes to protection, the engineering approach appears to be the use of shielding to protect delicate circuitry. However, the cost of shielding for all except the most critical military uses would be prohibitive, especially as we are used to seeing the cost of electronics continue to drop according to  Moore’s Law. And even if the lawmakers mandated such protection going forward, we would never see the billions upon billions of existing products retrofitted with sufficient shielding. Consequently, Step 1 is to require shielding for public and private mission-critical electronic systems going forward.
Step 2, which is indirectly hinted at in Forstchen’s book, is to retain and build mechanical and electro-mechanical systems, which do not depend on electronics. In the book, the only vehicles operating were those built prior to the introduction of electronic components. I’m not saying that electronics should be abandoned … far from it. However I am suggesting that, for electronic systems, you should either shield them or have in place manual mechanical backup, recognizing that modern manufactured products are increasingly dependent on digital technologies.

Postscript: I just happened upon the last few minutes of the movie “John Carpenter’s Escape from L.A.” and (wouldn’t you know?) the protagonist, Snake Plissken, activates a ring of satellites that generates electromagnetic pulses to “shut down the Earth.” While some question the feasibility of this approach, it does represent an interesting potential vector, doesn’t it?