Electromagnetic pulse threat rises, Air Force report says
U.S. military facilities involved in command and control of forces face a growing risk of disruption by an electromagnetic pulse attack or solar superstorm that could knock out all electronics at the strategic bases, according to a report.
The report by the Air Force Electromagnetic Defense Task Force, made up of civilian and military experts, also warns that EMP or geomagnetic disturbances could cause catastrophic damage and the loss of life in the United States.
“Multiple adversaries are capable of executing a strategic attack that may black out major portions of a state’s grid,” the report said. “An EMP attack affects all devices with solid-state electronics and could render inoperative the main grid and backup power systems, such as on-site generators.”
With heavy reliance on electronics, American society is not prepared to deal with the effects of either a nuclear weapon-caused EMP or a large solar flare that could disrupt critical electric-powered functions for months or years, the report says.
One of the key threats facing the military outlined in the report involves potential EMP attacks on command and control systems used to communicate with and direct military forces.
The report noted that flooding in 2017 at a military base incapacitated a major military command and control facility. Military mission operations were negatively affected for several days while repairs were made.
The report said America’s adversaries recognize that U.S. command and control systems are major targets in a conflict. They know that if the military’s ability to communicate is disrupted, then military effectiveness will be severely limited.
“In terms of strategy, from an adversary’s standpoint, military installations represent the vulnerable underbelly of the defense enterprise,” the report said. “In particular, if deliberate or natural EMS phenomena affect an installation’s command post, the capabilities of associated forces may be degraded or stopped.”
The report warned that under the right conditions “an adversary could impact the communications systems of most U.S. military installations simultaneously.”
The commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, Air Force Gen. John Hyten, warned in 2017 that the United States is ill-prepared to deal with threats posed by an EMP attack.
“EMP is a realistic threat, and it’s a credible threat.” Gen. Hyten said.
The Strategic Command, which commands nuclear forces, is capable of continuing most operations after an EMP attack or solar superstorm beyond seven days. However, the command’s reliance on systems that are not hardened against EMP could rapidly restrict nuclear forces. An example is aerial refueling needed to support the National Airborne Operations Center and other command and control systems could be degraded.
The report included a chart showing that the Air Force is preparing to deal with an EMP attack from a nuclear weapon detonated miles above the United States, an explosion that would cause a catastrophic power outage affecting an estimated 318 million people for 30 days.
By contrast, the Air Force sees a kinetic attack on the power grid as causing a catastrophic power outage that would affect 10 million people for two weeks, while taking three to six months to replace electrical equipment.
China’s drive to become the dominant power in the advanced, high-speed 5G digital communications technology also poses risks to the U.S. military. “The states or non-states that control the 5G network will dictate or control all digital transactions including the ability to share and receive information,” the report said.
“Because control of 5G is roughly equivalent to control of the internet, open 5G is critical to freedom and free-market economics,” the report noted. “Meanwhile, access to the 5G-millimeter wave bandwidth will be critical to operations in all war-fighting domains, in particular, space [command and control].”
Another vulnerability for the United States involves the network of nuclear power stations, which rely on electricity to maintain cooling systems to prevent meltdowns and the release of radioactive material.
“Most experts agree that if a GMD or EMP incapacitates an electrical grid, the grid will likely remain in a failed state from weeks to months,” the report said. “In turn, the ability to provide continued electrical cooling for nuclear power plant reactors and spent fuel pools would be at the top of electricity restoration priorities within hours.”
Currently, however, the ability to aid distressed nuclear power stations is “very limited” and power plants have about 16 hours of backup battery power.
“In the United States, this would risk meltdowns at approximately 60 sites and 99 nuclear reactors, with more than 60,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel in storage pools,” the report said. “Prolonged loss of power to these critical sites poses a risk of radioactive contamination to the continental United States with consequentially disastrous impact to the economy and public health.”
Both to military and civilian infrastructure and hardware face risks from jet-stream winds spreading radioactive materials.
The report, published by the Air University at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, in November, was written by Air Force Maj. David Stuckenberg, former CIA Director R. James Woolsey and Col. Douglas DeMaio.
NAVY SUBMARINE WOES
An investigation by Congress’ Government Accountability Office found that the Navy has been unable to begin or complete most of its attack submarine maintenance in a timely fashion, resulting in operational delays and excessive costs.
“GAO’s analysis of Navy maintenance data shows that between fiscal year 2008 and 2018, attack submarines have incurred 10,363 days of idle time and maintenance delays as a result of delays in getting into and out of the shipyards,” a report made public last month states.
One example was the USS Boise, which was scheduled for extended maintenance in 2013. The work was held back by shipyard delays. In 2016, the Boise was unable to conduct normal operations and remained idle at pierside for over two years waiting for access to a shipyard.
GAO estimates that since fiscal 2008, the Navy has spent $1.5 billion to support attack submarines that “provide no operational capability — those sitting idle while waiting to enter the shipyards, and those delayed in completing their maintenance at the shipyards.”
The report focused on the Navy’s 51 attack submarines — 33 Los Angeles-class, 3 Seawolf-class and 15 Virginia-class submarines. The vessels are engaged clandestine intelligence gathering, attacking enemy targets, and transporting special operations forces. The capabilities make the submarine among the most requested assets for global military commanders.
The GAO said the Navy has begun addressing the problems at shipyards. However, the service has “not effectively allocated maintenance periods among public shipyards and private shipyards that may also be available to help minimize attack submarine idle time,” the report said.
Investigators discovered that as public shipyards are working overtime over the past several years, “attack submarine maintenance delays are getting longer and idle time is increasing.”
“Without addressing this challenge, the Navy risks continued expenditure of operating and support funding to crew, maintain, and support attack submarines that provide no operational capability because they are delayed in getting into and out of maintenance,” the report said.
GAO urged the Navy to carry out a business case analysis to improve maintenance workload allocation across public and private shipyards.
A former White House official who worked for former President George H.W. Bush, whose state funeral was held Wednesday, shared this humorous anecdote about the World War II Navy pilot.
The ex-White House official met Mr. Bush a few years after he left office, and the former president recalled that the former official had been a Marine.
“I had to join the Navy; I was ineligible for the Marines,” Mr. Bush said.
“Why?” the former official asked.
“My parents were married when I was born,” Mr. Bush quipped.
• Bill Gertz
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