In 1983, a young Matthew Broderick played a young hacker named David Lightman who accidentally discovers a military supercomputer and gets it to play “Global Thermonuclear War” with him in the movie ‘War Games.’ The computer stages a first strike involving hundreds of missiles, bombers and submarines, and the U.S. military, believing the Soviets are attacking us, prepare to respond with real nukes.
Fortunately, global thermonuclear war is averted by the end of the movie. But the perpetuation of the belief that complete and total destruction will be the result of massive nuclear strikes continues to this day. And it’s wrong.
A little more than 21 years before the movie, a more real and worrisome event was taking place. The Air Force Special Weapons Center delivered a preliminary plan in November of 1961 under the entirely unassuming name of Operation FISHBOWL. This operation was a “proposed series of high altitude nuclear effects tests.”
According to the plan, which was only declassified on April 6, 2007, the primary objective of the series of tests was to “…obtain data regarding the interference to radar and communication systems produced by a high altitude nuclear burst.” At the time, the scientists and defense specialists suspected that a such a blast could cause a blackout with “serious implications for critical defense systems such as BMEWS, Nike-Zeus, ICBM penetration and many communication systems, and conversely that its employment may be an effective ICBM offensive tactic.”
On July 9, 1962, a single nuclear weapon was detonated 900 miles southwest of Hawaii from a height of over 240 miles. The International Space Station orbits at that height. To put it in perspective, the average passenger jet only flies around 35,000 feet or a little over 7 miles up.
It delivered more than test results.
Thirteen minutes after launch, an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) “…knocked out electrical service in Hawaii, nearly 1,000 miles away. Telephone service was disrupted, streetlights were down and burglar alarms were set off by a pulse that was much larger than scientists expected.”
The EMP weapon was born.
It wasn’t until October 2000 that the ‘Commission To Assess The Threat To The United States From Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack’ was established. From 2001 to 2008, the EMP Commission looked at four major areas, including the “vulnerability of the United States military and especially civilian systems to an EMP attack, giving special attention to vulnerability of the civilian infrastructure as a matter of emergency preparedness.”
For many years, the United States knew the protection of the civilian infrastructure was extremely lacking.
In the 1960s, telephone systems were copper wire and circuit-based. This made our primary means of communication vulnerable to a single missile strike by the USSR. What was needed was a “galactic network” of computers that would continue to function even if the Soviets devastated our telephone system. Thus, the internet was born.
Our telephone systems are no longer copper wire and circuit-based. They are computer networks moving voice, video and data on fiber strands at the speed of light. However, just like in 1960, they are vulnerable to a single strike. This time a single EMP weapon could fry the electronics and devices carrying our network and internet traffic — among other, more destructive, things.
An EMP attack sends an electromagnetic shock. According to The Heritage Foundation, this shock “…disrupts electronics, such as sensors, communications systems, protective systems, computers, and other similar devices.” The insidious scheme of an EMP attack is that it doesn’t destroy buildings or kill people directly — It doesn’t have to. And the effects are both immediate and long-term.
The very first victim of an EMP attack — or its lingering effects, at least — was the United States. It was self-inflicted. One day after the detonation of Starfish Prime, AT&T launched the communications satellite Telstar, which relayed the very firsttransatlantic television signal between the United States and France. During its brief life, Telstar transmitted telephone calls and faxes in addition to television signals. But the transistors aboard Telstar were irreparably damaged by the lingering radiation from the blast and began to quit working. A subsequent high-altitude test by the Soviet Union in October of 1962 finished off the satellite. The persistent radiation from the tests conducted by the United States and the Soviet Union continued to do extensive damage long after the detonations.
So an EMP attack could immediately fry all electronics in a large radius and then continue to degrade systems in orbit.
Imagine a city, county or state without power. No communications of any kind whether it’s a landline, mobile or internet. Hospitals would have no power of any kind — main or emergency. The safety of the water supply would rapidly deteriorate. There would be little to no access to money. ATM’s wouldn’t function, and banks would close out of security concerns.
How long could a city or region go without power, food or water?
Surely a threat of this magnitude would be a key focus in protecting our critical infrastructure. From 2001 to 2008, the EMP Commission undertook its duties and delivered its final report that detailed over 100 recommendations to protect our critical infrastructure, including communications, transportation, energy, business, finance, food and water.
As of 2015, not a single recommendation had been implemented.
Even when the Commission was reconstituted for 2015-2017, it seemed to fall on deaf ears.
The number of adversaries capable of conducting and EMP attack is growing, not diminishing. EMP attacks are included in the military doctrines of China, Russia, Iran and North Korea.
Failure to harden our infrastructure against EMP attacks only lowers the threshold of capability needed by an adversary to inflict catastrophic damage. Our single point of failure in the 1960s was our reliance on the telephone system. Our biggest single point of failure today isn’t our reliance on all of our marvelous technology. It’s our failure to harden them from the very kind of attack the United States demonstrated nearly fifty-seven years ago.
Former Israeli Defense Force Major General Isaac Ben-Israel, cyber security advisor to Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, summed it up in a single sentence: “If you want to hit a country severely, you hit its power and water supplies.” He also noted, “Cyber technology can do this without firing a single bullet.”
The combination of an EMP and cyber attack might be something movies get made about, like a modern War Games. In real life, there’s not a happy ending.
Morgan Wright is an expert on cybersecurity strategy, cyberterrorism, identity theft and privacy. He previously worked as a senior adviser in the U.S. State Department Antiterrorism Assistance Program and as senior law enforcement adviser for the 2012 Republican National Convention. Follow him on Twitter @morganwright_us.