BLACKOUT USA — A Real Life Nightmare Nearer Than You Think

Four days before Halloween, on Sunday morning, October 27, 2013, terrorists in Mexico’s Michoacan state blacked out the electric grid, leaving some 420,000 powerless and thirteen dead. That same Sunday night, National Geographic aired the docudrama American Blackout. This fictionalized account of a cyber attack on the electric grid depicts some of the horrific consequences of a nationwide blackout lasting 10 days:

People get trapped in elevators and become virtual prisoners in their high-rise apartment buildings. Gasoline is rationed to the military and hospitals, so the average American has no transportation–except for his legs. Food and water become so scarce that there is a life and death struggle over a can of peaches. Before day 10 of the blackout, society starts breaking down into anarchy as gangs and vigilante groups run wild.One of the heroes of the docudrama, a survivalist who is prepared for anything and does everything right, except for one seemingly small and humane mistake, is about to have his throat cut, when electric power, and civilization, suddenly returns on day 10.

National Geographic is to be applauded for American Blackout which is essentially a training film to educate the American people about the very real threat posed to their lives by a cyber attack on the electric grid. If there is any fault or unrealism in the docudrama, it is that the blackout lasts only 10 days, and recovery is achieved so quickly.

In real life, terrorists or rogue states would probably not limit their attack on the nation’s electric grid to computer viruses or hacking, as implied in the docudrama. They would also use other more destructive means–that could cause a protracted national blackout lasting months or years.

Moreover, Mother Nature can inflict a potentially protracted national blackout. Regardless of how one weighs the threat to the national grid from terrorists or rogue states–the Sun will, sooner or later, hurl toward the Earth a geomagnetic super-storm, with catastrophic consequences for the national electric grid.


The Sun–The Inevitable Cyber Threat

Solar flares, technically called coronal mass ejections, regularly collide with the Earth’s magnetosphere and generate geomagnetic storms that can damage electric grids by means of a natural electromagnetic pulse (EMP). Geomagnetic storms happen every year and normally affect nations at high northern latitudes, such as Canada, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia.

In 1989 a geomagnetic storm, called the Hydro-Quebec Storm, blacked out eastern Canada for a day, causing billions of dollars in economic losses.

The Congressional EMP Commission and National Academy of Sciences warns that, every century or so, the Sun hits the Earth with a coronal mass ejection of such power that it generates a geomagnetic super-storm, like the 1859 Carrington Event. In 1859, the Carrington Event damaged the primitive electronics of the time worldwide. Fires broke out in telegraph stations. Telegraph cables burst into flames causing forest fires. So powerful was the EMP that it penetrated miles down through the depths of the Atlantic Ocean and burned out the just laid telegraph cable linking North America to Europe.

Electricity was still a novelty in 1859, and in those horse and buggy days not vital to survival of civilization. However, if a Carrington Event recurred today, it would crash electric grids and critical infrastructures worldwide, and put at risk the lives of billions.

Indeed, if the 1921 Railroad Storm recurred today–a geomagnetic storm estimated to be only one-tenth as powerful as the Carrington Event–the National Academy of Sciences calculates that it could cause an American Blackout lasting, not 10 days, but 4–10 years.

The National Intelligence Council, that represents the collective views of the U.S. intelligence community, in 2012 published an unclassified report Global Trends 2030 that warned, by or before 2030, a geomagnetic super-storm, like recurrence of the 1859 Carrington Event, was one of eight “Black Swans” that could change the course of world civilization.

It is a scientific consensus that recurrence of a Carrington-class geomagnetic super-storm is inevitable.

Nuclear EMP–The Ultimate Cyber Threat

Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) is a dimension of the cyber threat that is not usually considered a cyber threat in Western doctrine, but is in the playbooks for an Information Warfare Operation of Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran. These potential adversaries in their military doctrines include as part of cyber warfare a wide spectrum of operations beyond computer viruses, including sabotage and kinetic attacks, up to and including nuclear EMP attack.

It is vitally important that we understand that a nuclear EMP attack is part of cyber and information warfare operations as conceived by our potential adversaries. Our cyber doctrine must be designed to deter and defeat the cyber doctrines of our potential adversaries by anticipating how they plan to attack us–but our doctrine currently does not.

Our cyber and information warfare doctrines are dangerously blind to the likelihood that a potential adversary making an all-out information warfare campaign designed to cripple the U.S. electric grid and other critical infrastructures would include an EMP attack.

The assessment that nuclear EMP attack is included in the cyber and information warfare doctrine of potential adversaries, and the effects of an EMP attack described here, are based on the work of the Congressional EMP Commission that analyzed this threat for nearly a decade (2001–2008). The Congressional Strategic Posture Commission and several other major U.S. Government studies independently arrived at similar conclusions, and represent collectively a scientific and strategic consensus that nuclear EMP attack upon the United States is an existential threat.

Nuclear EMP Attack

A nuclear weapon detonated at high-altitude, above 30 kilometers, will generate an electromagnetic pulse that can be likened to a super-energetic radio wave, more powerful than lightning, that can destroy and disrupt electronics across a broad geographic area, from the line of sight from the high-altitude detonation to the horizon.


For example, a nuclear weapon detonated at an altitude of 30 kilometers would project an EMP field with a radius on the ground of about 600 kilometers, that could cover all the New England States, New York and Pennsylvania, damaging electronics across this entire region, including electronics on aircraft flying across the region at the time of the EMP attack. The EMP attack would blackout at least the regional electric grid, and probably the entire Eastern Grid that generates 70 percent of U.S. electricity, for a protracted period of weeks, months, possibly years.

The blackout and EMP damage beyond the electric grid in other systems would collapse all the other critical infrastructures–communications, transportation, banking and finance, food and water–that sustain modern civilization and the lives of millions.

Such an EMP attack, a nuclear detonation over the U.S. East Coast at an altitude of 30 kilometers, could be achieved by lofting the warhead with a meteorological balloon.

A more ambitious EMP attack could use a freighter to launch a medium-range missile from the Gulf of Mexico, to detonate a nuclear warhead over the geographic center of the United States at an altitude of 400–500 kilometers. The EMP field would extend to a radius of at least 2,200 kilometers on the ground, covering all of the contiguous 48 United States, causing a nationwide blackout and collapse of the critical infrastructures everywhere.

All of this would result from the high-altitude detonation of a single nuclear missile.

The Congressional EMP Commission warned that Iran appears to have practiced exactly this scenario. Iran has demonstrated the capability to launch a ballistic missile from a vessel at sea. Iran has also several times practiced and demonstrated the capability to detonate a warhead on its medium-range Shahab III ballistic missile at the high-altitudes necessary for an EMP attack on the entire United States. The Shahab III is a mobile missile, a characteristic that makes it more suitable for launching from the hold of a freighter.

Launching an EMP attack from a ship off the U.S. coast could enable the aggressor to remain anonymous and unidentified, and so escape U.S. retaliation.

EMP In Cyber Warfare

The Congressional EMP Commission warned that Iran in military doctrinal

writings explicitly describes making a nuclear EMP attack to eliminate the United States as an actor on the world stage as part of an Information Warfare Operation. For example, various Iranian doctrinal writings on information and cyber warfare make the following assertions:

  • “Nuclear weapons…can be used to determine the outcome of a war…without inflicting serious human damage [by neutralizing] strategic and information networks.”
  • “Terrorist information warfare [includes]…using the technology of directed energy weapons (DEW) or electromagnetic pulse (EMP).”
  • “…today when you disable a country’s military high command through disruption of communications you will, in effect, disrupt all the affairs of that country….If the world’s industrial countries fail to devise effective ways to defend themselves against dangerous electronic assaults, then they will disintegrate within a few years.”

China’s premier military textbook on information warfare, written by China’s foremost expert on cyber and information warfare doctrine, makes unmistakably clear that China’s version of an all-out Information Warfare Operation includes both computer viruses and nuclear EMP attack. According to People’s Liberation Army textbook World War, the Third World War–Total Information Warfare, written by Shen Weiguang, “Therefore, China should focus on measures to counter computer viruses, nuclear electromagnetic pulse…and quickly achieve breakthroughs in those technologies…”:

With their massive destructiveness, long-range nuclear weapons have combined with highly sophisticated information technology and information warfare under nuclear deterrence….Information war and traditional war have one thing in common, namely that the country which possesses the critical weapons such as atomic bombs will have “first strike” and “second strike retaliation” capabilities ….As soon as its computer networks come under attack and are destroyed, the country will slip into a state of paralysis and the lives of its people will ground to a halt. Therefore, China should focus on measures to counter computer viruses, nuclear electromagnetic pulse…and quickly achieve breakthroughs in those technologies in order to equip China without delay with equivalent deterrence that will enable it to stand up to the military powers in the information age and neutralize and check the deterrence of Western powers, including the United States.


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