Twilight’s Last Gleaming
The United States is in currently in the midst of an extremely high stakes gamble. A technological gamble that makes the U.S. vulnerable to an Electro Magnetic Pulse (EMP) attack. Much evidence, data, and record exists to show with no discretion the fragile and dilapidated power grid built decades ago, left in disrepair, and in a perfect position to be totally subverted. The situation for America only gets worse the defense programs, along with the economy and most of modern society, would be rendered useless if an EMP were to detonate over America. An EMP ionizes the air and disables all electronic equipment within a U.S. sized area. This places the U.S. in a very unstable position and currently applies a catastrophic risk to American society. The technological investments currently in America are insufficient to combat an EMP , and not enough care is being taken into mitigating this major risk which leaves every single American reliant upon electricity and electronics in a powerless and unstable position.
In physics and engineering, stability is referred to a trend of a system which returns or tends to its normal value. Instability is when slight changes cause a large change in the system. In historical terms destabilization is a recurring theme in terms of societal collapses. If an unstable system is destabilized, then disaster promptly follows. Modern American society in this technological sense is very unstable, though this also has a social component. Many simple examples exist to illustrate America’s instability. Our water systems, road systems, internet (and thereby a plethora of other dependent systems such as food supply, which includes digital refrigeration), and medical, just to name a few, are unstable in their current national linking and design. In investigating instability, only a small change in few or one of the variables is necessary to see a significant catastrophe. A disruption due to war or terrorism are a few of many very possible disruptions which can lead to national life support system failure. Many may define the U.S. as the most powerful complex interconnected system operating on a global scale. However, the U.S. is behind in terms of secondary ‘back ups’ and infrastructure. The consequences for this may prove to be disastrous in the future.
Much study has been done to show the modeled outcomes of an EMP over the United States, disabling all electronics and thereby all the national life support systems. Anything such as laptops, phones, banking, and thermostats would be rendered obsolete. Much of this is due to archaic, decaying, or inadequate technological infrastructure pervading many of the life support systems in America. The systems are unstable as they cannot withstand an attack or disruption on a mass-scale. All the devices which we use on a constant basis to survive are one bomb in the sky away from becoming fancy pieces of metal. Power outages from simple storms can result in loss of power and anxiety for days on end. The real possibility of an EMP attack would be a storm power outage scenario but orders of magnitude higher in severity, as indicated by the Department of Homeland Security.
Unimaginable consequences would occur simply from large scale loss of the interconnected power grid. Hurricanes and Storms already do an absurd amount of damage yearly. It would not be difficult for an angry foreign power to incapacitate America via technological (or biological) means. As our lives are dependent and built around receiving power and powering all of our means of sustenance, it is clear to see the very fine line we live on at all times. The line is fine and unstable the same reason a tightrope walker is unstable when performing his act. And that is that there is no other balance point or safety net. In its current state, America’s technological infrastructure does not have a safety net if it were to be specifically targeted. The result of being on such a fine line is that the regular lives of Americans can cleverly be ‘powered off’ completely with no alternative or backup mechanism.
What is worse is that the economy is digitized, leaving it vulnerable along with our power grid. Such is our technological infrastructure when it is coupled. A collapse in the dollar would be a collapse of society as we know it. This is since its digital nature is not backed up and fail-safe’d. This is one major manifestation of an instability. As the saying goes, money is what makes the world go round. It is almost trivial and unnoticeable to many the dependence of money on technological power (as the financial system is all digital). This is akin to vital organs being interdependent on one another. But unlike the body has protective features to maintain homeostasis, the interdependent systems in America do not have a developed protection backup and that is what makes it very unstable. The very basis of American hegemony rests upon the economy and the value of the dollar. Not only that, but also the means for the population to acquire its resources lies on a very thin line. It is not impossible for such a vital collapse to occur. If it were, society would devolve in a state of pure destruction and anarchy, with citizens left to fend for themselves and somehow – without power – attempt to acquire their resources against competition, like something out of Mad Max.
Societal disruption also has demonstrably shown its chaotic effects and thereby an inherent societal instability, which partly has roots in technological instability. The American reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic produced a significant economic disruption, particularly in unemployment numbers. As a chaotic response ensued the pandemic, it is clear to see American health and bureaucratic institutions were not armed or prepared to tackle the pandemic in a less chaotic fashion – an instability. With any disruption it is reasonable to expect some negative feedback and resistance. However, when America was put to the test, a large destabilization in employment ensued. Many other nations did not experience the deep negative impacts of the pandemic as America did, “The unemployment rate in May might have been as high as 16% by the U.S. Government’s estimate” compared to the U.K.’s 4.1%. Preparedness is stability, and instability is chaos.
Stability is preparedness. Against an EMP, or a health crisis, there is no clear plan for America for those events. Time after time many warnings have been made regarding these types of disasters. There is the problem of funding, as always of course. However, the cost of unemployment and lack of food is far greater in terms of its impacts. By example America does not possess coordinated plans of action for many vital systems pertinent to the survival of the whole population.
With many other developed nations investing and developing for preparedness and the future, a comparison can be made with America. America, for most of its vital systems which run the machine, instead of preparing and resolving current instabilities in its techno-social structure, has to focus on maintaining the tightrope walk between proper function and impending disaster.
A massive major storm taking out power to an entire swathe of the U.S. has the capability of leaving thousands without electricity for multiple weeks due to the slow moving and old power grid and response mechanisms. Contrastingly, an electromagnetic pulse were to detonate over the middle of America, all the population’s means of communication, power, refrigeration, economy, and society would be at full mercy to the ionization of the particles in the air. It doesn’t take a particularly foreign threat to do much damage to the U.S. population. Despite the development of physical understanding and technologies, America is in this energetically vulnerable position due to lack of investment in improved energy transport infrastructure, specifically the electric power grid. There is much physics and engineering which allows for electromagnetic shielding, and there is also much literature and work done on improving operational procedures regarding our electrical power system. The only question is whether the U.S. government is prepared to being a serious and sophisticated analysis, reevaluation, monetary investment, and improvement upon the current existing infrastructure. Disinterest and funding shortfalls threaten America’s power grid as never before.
America has almost zero defensive and counter-threat infrastructure against EMP’s, which render electromagnetic devices useless according to BMC. America can be fragmented and destroyed simply from disabling digital devices. Any foreign power with nuclear weapons can create an EMP over America. Power plants, substations, lines, devices, etc. would ultimately be severely damaged or obliterated by hostile foreign nations. Now more than ever the solution should be clear to scientists, engineers, the rest of the world, and America.
When one steps outside in America to examine the powerlines, it is hard to find any significant change at all since they were first erected. The only time we ever hardly see anything different or a replacement is during power outages. The antiquated delivery systems for electricity are only one such example of lack of interest and investment from the government. Powerlines, most of which are 30 years old, have not received investment since their inception. It would take a massive national effort and trillions of dollars to alter and re-engineer the dilapidated power grid. That is to say, the desperate changes America needs will not happen anytime soon, which only perpetuates the looming danger of losing society as we know it.
Many power plants were created during the post war boom following WWII. Yet, while WWII veterans become increasingly hard to come by, it is without scarcity to find a power plant dating to the 1940’s. so much so that the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the entire energy infrastructure a barely passing grade of D+ for all the United States. That is truly astounding considering electricity and its delivery is the literal powerhouse of our modern industrialized society. The U.S. government’s lack of interest, improvement, and investment in the power grid means that the state of our power systems has equivalently become a deteriorated and dilapidated relic with an increasing number of yearly problems.
As a matter of fact, America’s vulnerability and lacking in the energy sector currently ends up costing more money to supply electricity to millions of homes. If only investment would be made in changing or improving upon the power grid, then the investment would have a very good justification. So here a new vulnerability for America is created from the disinterest of change and funding: the vulnerability of American energy on the world market. Americans paying more for outdated power delivery simply because the infrastructure has not been maintained or updated properly hurts the American economy, but most importantly and principally, Americans which are paying for electricity at the ‘archaic’ price level.
Americans are still living in the shadow of development and technological progress while utilizing dilapidated and unprotected electric devices and power transmission. As is usually the case, lack of money is the issue. A lack of interest for investment in such a large and indispensable component of the American Machine is extremely dangerous, as all of the unshielded circuits which are abstracted away from us but inside everything we use are one short circuit away from complete inutility which implies the worst for America. All which Americans rely on that is nowadays fully electronic is what fuels and supplied energy, power, even commerce according to The Economist, and communication. For these reasons
Many would be surprised to hear that the United States, the most powerful and prominent military force and authority on the planet, is in fact one of the most vulnerable nations on Earth to this very specific kind of attack. That is, an Electromagnetic pulse to wholly cripple the power grid, all electronic devices, and everything else in between that depends on the flow of electricity – one of those being the U.S. economy. There are many factors to consider when contemplating or modelling the likelihood and motivation for an EMP attack. While many would agree direct attacks such as nuclear approach impossibility in their likelihood, an EMP attack is actually a less-direct attack that would in fact disarm the United States from an adequate and defensive response due to the digital nature of our integrated defense systems at present, and is therefore a highly plausible and very possible situation.
As Ariel Cohen remarked in Forbes, it is already well established that America does not have proper preparation for an EMP attack that could disable national electronic and digital devices, of which everything essential running the American system is dependent upon. There also currently exist a plethora of fresh threats to American sovereignty, such as Iran, Russia, and China, among many which have an arsenal of nuclear weapons. Any nuclear bomb detonated in the atmosphere rather than via ground-impact can be utilized as an EMP with ranges as large as the area of the U.S. Such nations that do possess nuclear weapons thereby may utilize them as EMP’s against America. A detonated EMP in the atmosphere over the target region will ionize the particles in the air such that any electronic device will instantly short circuit due to the air present in them.
Many will claim that nuclear attacks against the major nation America is simply not in the realm of possibility. However, the only seed necessary for the possibility to exist is negative dispositions and views of America held by hostile individuals and nations, which we certainly know exist in abundance. We also encounter the argument of mutual destruction. The classic argument of mutual self-destruction due to nuclear weapons usage does not apply to the situation of a potential EMP strike on America. An EMP is not a direct attack such as a warhead is. An EMP is a weapon in that it drastically changes the electromagnetic field over America. While no physical damage will occur, the induced drastic alteration of the EM field over America will instantly disable all electronic devices. For mutual destruction to be possible, retaliation would need to be encountered when an EMP strikes. However, American defensive maneuvers and systems will not be able to function as they are electrically operated as well supplied by an outdated power grid. A ‘mutual’ interaction between forces, attacker and U.S., would not occur due to the EMP. A Defense Technical Information Center paper from 1996 stated that EMP technology has matured to the point where their practical and very feasible usage allows for non-nuclear confrontations. Here there would be no possible mutual destruction on a nuclear basis.
As discussed, it is clear that anyone can establish a basis for desiring damage to America, such as the case with hostile powers. It is much more logically preferable to disable every mechanism of retaliation and defense (of America), which would also harm all major supply and food lines along with the economy, and to engage in a more direct warfare or attack after said defense capabilities are rendered null. This can simply be done with a single nuclear bomb detonated a mere 25 miles above in the atmosphere – less that a short family trip away. The alternative to an EMP by definition can only involve confrontation and therefore retaliation. For such actors that wish to cause harm to America, the EMP option is real, smoother, and superior. An EMP blast’s effects could linger hours to days. According to the Economist, North Korea already has developed a hydrogen nuclear bomb which they mentioned could be specifically employed as a High Altitude EMP. North Korea’s attitude towards the U.S. in the recent years has been extremely volatile, unfriendly, and provocatory. It would only take one EMP attack to leave the U.S. in an open position to be readily attacked. Furthermore, a 1992 paper by Carl E. Baum, fellow of IEEE, notes how EMP technology is possessed by most major industrialized nations. A door to an EMP attack is open, and that is a risk which should not be merely held over America’s head.
For the discussed reasons, the threat of retaliation from the U.S. is thereby little danger to a hostile actor. It is certainly true that such an EMP attack has never been attempted on such a large nation. However, this can be due to a variety of factors like globalization, lack of speed in EMP’s and simply lack of necessary tension in order to rigger such a chain of events. Yet we know from history that global tension ebbs and flows like the ocean waves, sometimes violently and spectacularly. A ‘decision tree’ in which one follows through with an EMP has been identified and certainly exists, as our government fears. The vulnerability is recognized and is real by our own government (specifically the Trump administration). The deep and doomsday consequences of an EMP attack are real as described by the laws of physics. The U.S. is therefore not in a high and mighty position and safe or protected as some may boldly, and incorrectly, claim. The U.S. is more akin to a sitting duck. Or more accurately, like the slow and lazy antelope wading in the obscure and fuzzy field of a looming pounce from a deadly and patient predator.
So no, America is not safe from anything, as everything depends on electricity and our grid. For fast EMP’s which rival nations do have, defense systems would not be able to respond adequately or fast enough. Our retaliation measures would be nonexistent. Every such event in the decision tree of an American downfall and catastrophe has a much greater than zero probability even though others may naively ignore it or claim otherwise. It is merely a matter of seizing the opportunity and time though some may choose to not see.
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Joshua D. Rhodes Postdoctoral Researcher of Energy. (2020, March 20). The old, dirty, creaky US electric grid would cost $5 trillion to replace. Where should infrastructure spending go? Retrieved November 6, from https://theconversation.com/the-old-dirty-creaky-us-electric-grid-would-cost-5-trillion-to-replace-where-should-infrastructure-spending-go-68290
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