Peter Pry, an expert in electromagnetic pulse weapons, known as EMPs, published an op-ed on June 18 in The Hill stating that China might be planning an EMP attack on the U.S. He says in the opinion piece that the country is vulnerable to such an attack.
Pry says the COVID-19 pandemic “exposed dangerous weaknesses in U.S. planning and preparation for civil defense protection and recovery.” He argues despite the U.S. spending decades and billions on preparing for biological warfare, they “have not even been able to competently cope” with the coronavirus outbreak.
Pry also points to the ongoing “cold civil war” in the U.S., saying anarchists and criminals have been “infiltrating recent protests” and that our “adversaries also have noticed.” He claims that for the last quarter-century, China has been planning an EMP attack on the U.S. in a “Pearl Harbor” type of cyber attack.
Pry was the chief of staff to the Congressional EMP Commission and was a staffer on the House Armed Services committee, according to his biography on The Hill website. Pry has also authored several books, including most recently, The Power And The Light: The Congressional EMP Commission’s War To Save America 2001-2020, published earlier this year.
Pry has faced criticism from other military and foreign policy experts of overstating the risk EMP weapons pose to the U.S. Jeffrey Lewis wrote in 2013 for Foreign Policy that the EMP threat is being pushed by mainly fearmongering conservatives who warned of nuclear attacks during the Cold War. Lewis wrote, “Enter the EMP threat. Having dug themselves into a hole on nuclear weapons issues, EMP advocates think they have another shot at winning the foreign policy argument. If the mortal threat posed by nuclear weapons doesn’t favor policies that emphasize our apartness from the wider world, what if a nuclear weapon were detonated way out there in the blue?”
So what is EMP and what would an EMP attack look like? Here’s what you need to know about Pry’s article and EMP attacks:
EMP Weapons Use Pulses of Energy to Damage Electronic & Electrical Equipment
EMPs are electromagnetic pulses — pulses of energy — that can travel through the atmosphere at high speeds. There are three main ways that EMP can be emitted, Forbes outlined in 2019: through the blast of a nuclear weapon, natural phenomenon like a solar flare or through a manmade portable weapon like a high power microwave weapon (HPMW).
A powerful EMP can affect the Earth’s magnetic field and damage electronic and electrical equipment, including computers, cell phones and transmission lines. Worse, it can impact critical communications infrastructure, and due to the way the U.S. electric grid is designed, small-scale attacks can lead to cascading failures across the whole country, affecting everything from food, water and public health to dams and nuclear reactors.
According to an internal memo by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission quoted by the EMP task force:
Destroy nine interconnection (transformer) substations and a transformer manufacturer and the entire United States grid would be down for at least 18 months, probably longer.
The EMP Task Force on Homeland and National Security is a non-governmental organization whose goals are to “educate the American people” about EMP threats and “advocate for policy changes” to boost the country’s preparedness. It’s made up of “citizens, engineers, field experts, and others” with Pry as the executive director.
Pry States That Despite Last Year’s Executive Order Designed to Boost the Electric Grid & Other Critical Infrastructure, No Steps Have Been Taken
In Pry’s op-ed, he explains that he warned the U.S. government back in 2005 about the risk of an EMP attack. He shares an excerpt of China’s military strategy that points to the U.S. vulnerability: “It could be regarded as the ‘Pearl Harbor incident’ of the 21st century if a surprise attack is conducted against the enemy’s crucial information systems … by such means as electronic warfare, electromagnetic pulse weapons, telecommunications interference and suppression, computer viruses, and if the enemy is deprived of the information it needs as a result.” The excerpt continues:
Even a super military power like the United States, which possesses nuclear missiles and powerful armed forces, cannot guarantee its immunity. … In their own words, a highly computerized open society like the United States is extremely vulnerable to electronic attacks from all sides. This is because the U.S. economy, from banks to telephone systems and from power plants to iron and steel works, relies entirely on computer networks.
Pry points out that Trump signed an executive order on March 26, 2019, the “Executive Order on Coordinating National Resilience to Electromagnetic Pulses.” Despite that order, Pry says the federal government, specifically the Department of Energy and the Department of Homeland Security, has taken no steps to “protect the national grid or other critical infrastructures.”
The EMP Task Force Recently Released a Full Report on the EMP Threat From China
The EMP task force states on its website that it is “concerned about the vulnerability of our electrical grid and other critical infrastructures and the danger that it poses to our children and families.” It says that the U.S. power grid crashing is a “very real” threat, and according to their experts, 70-90% of Americans would die in the first year after the power grid is destroyed.
A full report issued by the task force on June 10 says that “China has long known about nuclear high-altitude electromagnetic pulse (HEMP) and invested in protecting military forces and critical infrastructures from HEMP and other nuclear weapon effects during the Cold War, and continuing today.” A HEMP is a high-altitude electromagnetic pulse created by a nuclear explosion in space.
In fact, Pry says that China has HEMP simulators and offensive and defensive programs that are much more “robust” than the U.S. The Chinese military doctrine views HEMP attacks as a type of cyber attack and the “most likely kind of future warfare.”
But in his 2013 op-ed in Foreign Policy, Lewis criticized the studies by the task force:
The solution of the EMP Commission was simply to collect more data, essentially creating laundry lists of things that might go wrong. For example, the EMP Commission exposed 37 cars and 18 trucks to EMP effects in a laboratory environment. While EMP advocates claim the results of an EMP attack would be “planes falling from the sky, cars stalling on the roadways, electrical networks failing, food rotting,” the actual results were much more modest. Of the 55 vehicles exposed to EMP, six at the highest levels of exposure needed to be restarted. A few more showed “nuisance” damage to electronics, such as blinking dashboard displays.
Lewis added, “For those of us who see the United States as part of the world, nuclear weapons mean an end to the illusion of isolation and invulnerability. We are a member of the family of nations. And like many families, we don’t like all our relatives. But we don’t get to skip Thanksgiving. Nuclear weapons, like climate change, pose a shared danger to all nations and compel us to set aside our petty national differences.”
Pry Is an EMP Expert Who Has a Long Background in National Security Issues
According to his bio on the EMP task force website, Pry began his career in national security in the 1980s when he served as an analyst at the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency focusing on Soviet compliance with treaties. From 1985 to 1995, he worked as an intelligence officer in the CIA and was tasked with “analyzing Soviet and Russian nuclear strategy, operational plans, military doctrine, threat perceptions” and more.
Pry, 66, established the Congressional EMP Commission and helped it develop plans to protect the U.S. from EMP attacks in collaboration with “senior scientists who first discovered the nuclear EMP phenomenon.” He wrote many books and articles on national security and serves as the director of the United States Nuclear Strategy Forum.
Pry has frequently spoken out about the necessity of the U.S. being prepared for an EMP weapon attack. In 2019, he warned North Korea could wage an EMP attack on America and that technology would be quicker to develop than nuclear weapons feared by most in the U.S.
In 2015, Pry warned an EMP attack could claim nine out of 10 American lives, according to The Daily Advertiser. Pry said Americans would die from starvation, disease and societal collapse. His concerns were echoed by Ambassador Henry Cooper, the former director of the Strategic Defense Initiative. He told the newspaper, “Our governmental systems are broken in dealing with these issues, I believe so dysfunctional that people locally have got to learn to deal with the issues.”
In 2010, Yousaf Butt, an atomic scientist, wrote about EMP weapons in The Space Review, criticizing the takes by experts like Pry. Butt wrote:
The precise effects of nuclear EMP are difficult to predict but depend on, among other factors, the yield of the weapon, the detonation altitude, as well as upon the geographic latitude and the magnitude of the local geomagnetic field. Knowing the type of adversary who may entertain such an attack allows us to narrow down the sorts of weapons that may be employed, how they may be used, and thus the type of threat we possibly face.
Sim Tack, a military expert, told Vice News in 2015, “It’s not a work of fiction. It’s an actual technology that exists. It’s being played with in some capacity, and will potentially play a much greater role in future warfare. With the increasing importance of electronic circuits on the battlefield… There’s only more and more reason to create weapons that specifically target networking ability and electronics dependence.”
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