November 3, 2015—Protecting the Grid: Good News, Bad News . . .

November 3, 2015—Protecting the Grid: Good News, Bad News . . .

The Secretary of Defense at the time, Leon Panetta, called the threat of a cyber-attack on the power grid potentially a cyber-Pearl Harbor. That’s pretty huge, and nobody was paying any attention to it. And so I wondered: A) Are these people just exaggerating for reasons I don’t quite understand, and B) If they’re not, what is the government doing to prepare for it and to prepare the public for it? And my instinct told me that the answer was going to be not much. Not much is an exaggeration. Nothing is closer to the truth.” ~ Ted Koppel on the PBS Newshour, October 27, 2015, discussing his new book, “Lights Out: A Cyber Attack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath.”

Click here for a transcript and podcast of this most welcome full interview by Gwen Ifill of Ted Koppel, a veteran newsman and former anchor of ABC’s Nightline — in which he discusses a potential cyberattack on the electric power grid, including the above quotation, perhaps the most important bottom line in this interview. Click here for CBS’s longer and somewhat more informative Sunday morning interview (video and transcript) with Koppel. He was also on Friday’s Fox News’ O’Reilly factor.

If anything Koppel understated the consequences of a major attack today on the electric grid, indicating that there would be “thousands of fatalities.” Unless we take serious measures to protect against a possible shutdown of the entire grid, fatality estimates will more likely run to the tens, if not hundreds, of millions of Americans.

This is a daunting fact, especially given that the Director of the National Security Agency, General Michael Rogers, testified a year ago that he expects, within a decade, a major cyberattack on our critical infrastructure including the grid. Furthermore, if there is a competent attack on the grid, it will most likely involve components other than cyber, as discussed below.

Many might believe that computer generated cyberattacks might not include physical damage that cannot be quickly repaired by our defense “cyber geeks” after the pattern on CBS’s weekly CSI-Cyber TV show. But major physical damage also can be caused — and it may not be easily repaired.  For an illustration of the kind of potential damage, consider the linked CNN video of the 2007 Aurora experiment at Idaho National Laboratories.   Yes, that’s smoke.

So, this cyber threat to the grid is a real concern — and, thanks to Ted Koppel, the mainstream media is beginning to pay attention to it — at least for the cyber threat which could come from a variety of sources, including from North Korea and Iran — and even from jihadi groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).  

Mainstream media acknowledgment of the cyber threat is certainly “good news.” 

Part of the bad news, as noted above, is that a major portion of the U.S. population is at risk, especially when you consider that if terrorists attack us, they are likely to employ a combined attack strategy, including physical and electromagnetic (EMP) effects in addition to a cyberattack.

For example on April 16, 2013, we witnessed what could be accomplished by a physical attack on the Metcalf Substation near San Jose, California. Unknown (to this day) terrorists/saboteurs cut key cables connecting that substation to the grid and employed “sniper fire” to cause catastrophic damage to key difficult-to-quickly-replace critical components of that substation. Special Forces personnel believe this might have been a training mission for competent terrorists.

I understand the terrorists missed cutting one cable that, had it been cut, would have led to a collapse of the grid for Silicon Valley. Click here for a discussion of the attack scenario and concerns that were poorly accommodated after the event. That problems were not corrected was illustrated when the same facility was attacked again shortly over a year later.

Former Chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) Jon Wellinghoff observed that concurrent physical attacks on only nine such key substations could cause the loss of the entire national electric grid for eighteen months.  He resigned from FERC to speak openly about these problems that were not being addressed.

Wellinghoff also has observed that “There are probably less than 100 critical high voltage substations on our grid in this country that need to be protected from a physical attack . . . It is neither a monumental task, nor is it an inordinate sum of money that would be required to do so.”

That affordability is good news.  The bad news is that to my best knowledge, we have not made these improvements.

This bad news must be added to the “bad news” associated with the Koppel concerns about cyberattacks.

Then there’s the EMP threat. Here again there’s another good news, bad news story. 

Good news: Last week the administration held a White House conference releasing its “National Space Weather Strategy Action Plan,” e.g., see the Washington Post coverage.  To have formal Executive Branch acknowledgement of any aspect of the nation’s vulnerability to EMP is a good thing.  But this particular document is not really a plan at all — it really just calls for more study of the problem without any serious program to address already well understood serious grid vulnerabilities — and not only to “Space Weather.”

“Space Weather” is one euphemism referring to the Geomagnetic Disturbance (GMD) caused by a Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) from the Sun, which could cause catastrophic damage to the electric grid, unless we take measures to counter it. I usually refer to this threat by an alternate label, “Natural EMP” because it is not manmade — and will occur one day, only the timing is uncertain.

On July 22, 2012, the CME pictured below missed the Earth by a few days, had the Earth been slightly earlier in our orbit around the Sun, it would have experienced essentially world-wide electric grid failure — likely for an indefinite period. (The size of the Earth is for comparison purposes and does not reflect orbital realities.) NASA has estimated the likelihood of such a CME enveloping the Earth is 12-percent per decade.  We or our children will likely experience such an event.

151103_1I contrast Natural EMP, or “Space Weather,” with “Manmade EMP” that, for example, results 1) From high-altitude nuclear explosions to produce High-altitude EMP (HEMP) potentially over the entire United States (and Canada) or 3) From truck mounted or handheld Radio Frequency Weapons (RFWs) with a limited but threatening range capability. See the figures below. The former threat could be posed by nation states or possibly by jihadi terrorists if they obtain a nuclear weapon, wed it to a ballistic missile (e.g., a SCUD purchased for a few million dollars), launch it, for example, from a vessel off our coasts and detonate it at high altitude over the United States.  The latter EMP threats could be used to supplement physical attack scenarios, like that employed at the Metcalf Substation.


The “Manmade” EMP pulse from a nuclear explosion is much more severe than would be experienced from a Natural EMP, or “Space Weather.” Thus, a criticism of protecting the grid from Natural EMP per the announced National Space Weather Strategy is: The National Strategy will leave the grid vulnerable to manmade EMP threats, unless it is somehow supplemented to account for the differences — in both the high frequency E1 and low frequency E3 components of the Manmade and Natural EMP pulses. (Note: if the grid is hardened against the Manmade EMP threat, it will also be hardened against the Natural EMP threat. The converse is not true.)

Permitting such a vulnerability is not a minor criticism, because the Manmade EMP threat is quite real — and not only from Russia, China, and the like.

For example, the threat of such a manmade EMP attack by Iran is quite real, as emphasized by EMP Caucus Chairman Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ), in speaking on the House Floor about a year ago. He noted that “The National Intelligence University of the United States recently translated an Iranian military doctrine called ‘Passive Defense’ which referenced the use of nuclear EMP as a weapon more than 20 times. This doctrine stresses that electrical grids are vital to national existence. It includes a formula for calculating the value of electric power plants and for prioritizing the targeting of electric grid components and other infrastructures.”

The only uncertainty is when will Iran get nuclear weapons that can be delivered by the ballistic missiles and satellite launchers they already have — and some of us believe we should assume Iran already has them in our strategic and tactical planning.  Surely, we should not assume that the recent “unverifiable Deal with Iran” provides any margin for safety.

Even if this assumption is incorrect, we should remember that Iran’s ally North Korea already has nuclear weapons — and both nations have ballistic missiles/satellite launchers that have already orbited satellites at the right altitude to produce HEMP effects over the entire USA.  The relaxed sanctions under the recent Deal with Iran enables quick sale prospects for Iran to purchase needed weapons, if they don’t already have them.  And, like North Korea, Iran also has launched satellites — to their south so that they approach the United States from our south — and we are vulnerable to such an attack.

Finally, the bad news is that these issues are not novel.  Many were addressed by the congressionally mandated EMP Commission in its 2004 and 2008 open source reports. 

Furthermore, yours truly joined the other Directors of the Foundation for Resilient Societies in sending a substantive June 26, 2013 report and recommendations to the President and his principal Cabinet officials and Department Heads, with no response from anyone in the Obama administration, although the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) does list it on their webpage. On May 14, 2015, I joined 30 former senior officials, members of the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives, and concerned citizens in urging the President to issue a Presidential Directive, directing the Executive Branch to deal with this important matter.  Again, we have received no response.

Bottom Lines.

I applaud the Obama administration for acknowledging that our high technology, electricity-dependent society is vulnerable to Natural EMP, or solar storms, or CMEs or Space Weather.  But we are also vulnerable to the more stressful Manmade EMP threat.

That the Space Weather Strategy is only a “plan to make a plan” is very disappointing, especially since there are a number of active countermeasures that could adapted and adopted rapidly, given that we have been addressing these issues for a half-century in hardening our military systems to survive Manmade EMP threats, which are more severe than Natural EMP, or “Space Weather” threats.

Also, the Strategic Plan provides no indication of a plan to deal with the regulatory dysfunctionalities that stall and inhibit the development and adaption/adoption of known countermeasures that could markedly improve the viability of the electric grid upon which our very survival as a nation now depends.  This management problem needs urgent attention by both the executive branch and congress.

These issues no doubt would have been addressed under Section 1089 of the 2106 Defense Authorization Bill, which called for reinstating the EMP Commission (disbanded in 2008) with an expanded charter to assess man-made EMP devices, natural EMP or solar geomagnetic disturbances, and more localized IEMI devices  (HFWs)  — plus an assessment of foreign military doctrine on employment. Unfortunately, this important provision — which was not an issue — fell by the wayside with President Obama’s veto.  Congress and the administration should find a way, with the recently approved 2016 Budget authorization, to include this important initiative in the President’s FY 2016 program, funded at the originally approved $2 million level.

Such an effort should emphasize “quick fixes” to very troublesome problems in view of the evolving threats to the electric grid.   

Near Term High Frontier Plans.

We will continue to inform our readers of the looming threats we confront— and where appropriate urge them to engage in countering that threat.  Our leaders are failing at their sworn duty “to provide for the common defense” 

We will press for building the most cost-effective ballistic missile defenses possible and working with South Carolina folks to build a coalition to engage constructively with private citizens and their local and state representatives and other authorities to work with the SC National Guard in understanding and responding to the existential threats to the electric power grid.

We are especially focused on the nuclear power reactors that produce 60-percent of SC electricity — and more generally 20-percent of the nation’s electricity.

If it can be assured that they “operate through” a major blackout of the electric power grid, they can play a very important role for resurrecting it over an extended time and supporting the general public’s survival in the meantime.

What can you do?

Join us in praying for our nation, and for a rebirth of the freedom sought, achieved and passed to us by those who came before us.

Help us to spread our message to the grass roots and to encourage all “powers that be” to provide for the common defense as they are sworn to do.

Begin by passing this message to your friends and suggest they visit our webpage, for more information. Also, please encourage your sphere of influence to sign up for our weekly e-newsletter.

Encourage them to review our past email messages, posted on, to learn about many details related to the existential manmade and natural EMP threats and how we can protect America against them. I hope you will help us with our urgently needed efforts, which I will be discussing in future messages.

Click here to make a tax deductible giftIf you prefer to mail a check, Please send it to 500 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314.

E-Mail Message 151103


Please click here to read Past Weekly Updates!

Please help High Frontier continue this important and timely work!

Donate - Make A Difference

Be sure to follow us on our Social Sites!

Join-us-on-Facebook-100 100-Follow-us-on-Twitter 100-Follow-us-on-Youtube

If you found this letter via our Social Sites, and you would like to subscribe, please click below!

Sign UP

Share Button

Sorry, comments are closed for this post.