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USAF Role in the Electromagnetic Pulse Vulnerability of the United States Critical Infrastructure

  • Published
  • By Capt. Ronald McKinney Jr.


The nuclear capabilities of Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, and Violent Extremist Organizations (VEOs) are of substantial concern and are highlighted throughout the 2022  National Defense Strategy of the United States.[1] Along with these nuclear abilities comes the threat to the U.S. Homeland in the form of an Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) attack. A large enough EMP attack could destabilize significant swaths of the U.S. critical infrastructure services (electricity, telecommunications, water supply, etc.) for anywhere up to months at a time, impacting millions of citizens, jeopardizing governments, and causing untold billions in damage.[2] Various Department of Defense (DoD) services maintain a subset of EMP-hardened mission-critical assets in case of an EMP attack. However, the United States Air Force, including its personnel, installations, assets, and operational infrastructure, are inextricably intertwined with the EMP-vulnerable critical infrastructure of the United States. The USAF and other sister services could see a halt to U.S. military activities domestically and potentially worldwide following a successful EMP attack within the U.S.

In order to address this critical vulnerability, the United States Air Force (USAF), including the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) and sister services research entities, must strongly and urgently partner with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), academia, and industry (critical infrastructure entities) to promote awareness, refine best practices, and implement resilience to EMP attacks from enemies of the United States.


The term electromagnetic pulse (EMP) refers to a wave or field of high energy that is released when there is an intense, high-magnitude burst event at a high altitude that interacts with the Earth’s atmosphere and magnetic fields. High Altitude EMPs (HEMPs) can be caused by both natural and man-made triggers. One naturally triggered example occurred in March of 1989 when a spontaneous massive solar flare sent charged particles toward the earth’s magnetic field. This surge in atmospheric energy caused a reaction that knocked out electricity for the entire power grid of Quebec, Canada, impacting millions. The United States power grid felt the reverberations of this power loss, with hundreds of power issues recorded as well.[3] Another EMP was triggered by man-made weapons in 1962 when the United States detonated a 1.4-megaton bomb above the Johnston Atoll in the  Pacific Ocean at an altitude of 250 miles. The blast resulted in an EMP that knocked out radio communications and electricity in Hawaii, including traffic lights.[4]

It was not long before the world would come to grips with the effects of this explosion and the reality of its implication that man-made EMPs could conceivably be weaponized. When a high-altitude nuclear detonation occurs, gamma rays from the explosion cause air molecules to ionize. This reaction produces positive ions and recoil electrons, known as Compton electrons. The result is an extremely powerful electromagnetic field with the ability to damage or destroy electronic devices over a widespread area. The destructive capacity of such a magnetic field could wipe out large swaths of the technology-based critical infrastructure systems in the continental United States, putting millions of lives in danger.

Such an attack on the US mainland would be unique in that, unlike conventional kinetic weapons, an EMP attack would cause no direct physical damage to structures, and there would be no immediate loss of life directly from the detonation itself or the release of energy that followed. Instead, the released energy from the EMP would primarily damage and destroy the electronic devices and equipment that maintain the infrastructure systems on which the U.S. relies. Between direct damage to devices and subsequent inability to regulate infrastructural systems, all services and sectors that rely on electricity, telecommunications, transport, oil/gas, food, medical services, and finance/banking would cease.

To cause a significant amount of impact, an EMP attack on the U.S. would not have to take out every single power station. It would only have to take out a sufficient amount of electrical infrastructure assets in a localized region to destabilize that region and initiate a ripple effect, which would cause the major grids to collapse and fail completely. The United States electrical systems can be viewed as an interconnected web of thousands of plants and stations “holding up the system” and supplying power to various places. If a single station “goes down,” it is possible for other nearby stations to supply the missing power, “carry the extra weight,” and potentially help bring the downed station back “up.” However, if multiple stations were to go down in the same place at the same time, it would become that much more difficult for nearby stations to “carry the extra weight” and help supply the missing power or bring the downed station back “up.” In an extreme case, the “extra weight” that the “downed station” cannot carry could overwhelm the surrounding stations, causing them to “go down” in a ripple effect, ultimately causing the whole web to collapse.

High-altitude nuclear testing during the 1960s demonstrated an increased range of EMP blasts. For example, one 1.4-megaton explosion in 1962 had an estimated EMP blast radius of 800 miles. While such an attack on the United States’ heavily populated coasts would obviously cause significantly more harm than one on the central portion of the country, even an attack on the central states could have secondary effects that coastal states may not be able to withstand.

In a more extreme case, a multi-region attack would be even more devastating since the damaging energy would travel at the speed of light, thereby spreading damage across all impacted regions almost instantaneously. In such a scenario, this could cause a ripple effect scenario in which the major grids fail completely.[5]

Many forms of modern technology would be damaged or destroyed because of the sensitive electronic components that enable them to work. Beyond the obvious electronic devices, such as computers, phones, telecommunications towers, and radios, the prevalence of electrical components would also see the immobilization of a large number of motor vehicles and many other devices that are crucial to modern life. For example, semiconductors are vital components for electronic equipment and are specifically vulnerable to internal heating caused by EMP attacks and are not easily replaced in most modern electronics. Industrial electrical transformers at plants and substations would be at risk of overload and catastrophic failures in an EMP attack. These components are very large, expensive, and difficult to manufacture and transport. This makes it difficult to maintain and properly protect spares in EMP-shielded facilities where they might be needed.

Given the interdependence of the United States’ critical infrastructure, the inability to communicate or power industrial processes would have a devastating compounding effect. Major disruptions to water supplies, food production, food transportation networks, and medical services could directly endanger the US population, as such attacks could severely weaken the country’s economic and military power. Electrical power and telecommunications are also two systems that rely heavily on computer systems to manage them AND whose major components would most likely suffer severe permanent damage from an EMP attack.[6] The means and motive to target the U.S. with some form of significant-scale EMP attack lie most notably with China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea.[7]

Cyber-attacks of sufficient sophistication can mimic some effects of EMP on a comparable scale by rendering various interconnected critical infrastructure systems inoperable. Although this vector of attack is vastly different from EMP, the attackers’ desired result is the same for a much smaller investment of resources. While nuclear EMP attacks incur massive costs due to the various technologies needed, a cyber-attack could theoretically require little more than an internet-connected computer and a sufficiently skilled attacker to have a similar effect.[8]

Of course, these dangers have not gone unnoticed. The 2019 Presidential Executive Order on Coordinating National Resilience to Electromagnetic Pulses has identified and empowered chief stakeholders in the challenge of U.S. EMP resilience, such as the Departments of Homeland Security (DHS), Energy (DoE), and Defense (DoD). Charged with spearheading the protection of U.S. critical infrastructure, DHS has recognized the need for unified research for risk assessments that support preparing the civilian sector.[9] Therefore, the United States Air Force (USAF) and Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) should work with DoD sister services and their respective research laboratories in strong partnership with DHS, academia, and industry to work toward critical infrastructure resilience to enemy EMP attacks. While the DHS does not have direct authority to mandate the action of private sector infrastructure service providers, it can create and disseminate guidance to influence their operations.

Similar to the Energy Star program of the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy, DHS could implement a program of recognition to incentivize providers to comply with various EMP resilience awareness, training, and best practices.[10] I propose that the DHS adopt the designation “EMPowerED”.  While not an endorsement by any government entity, this program could be used as a way to distinguish the company as EMP-resilient. The term “EMPowerED” reflects multiple facets of the program:

  • “EMP” refers to the ElectroMagnetic Pulse as the titular subject matter of the program.
  • “Power” refers not just to the energy,  but the strength and resilience required to meet the challenge of acting in the best interest of the population who rely on the services provided by the organization.
  • “ED” refers to the educational aspect of the undertaking: sharing awareness, knowledge, and best practices.

Altogether, “EMPowerED” reminds those involved that they are granted the ability and means to help steer toward a safer, better future by capitalizing on the opportunities of the present. While an initial designation can indicate that a certain percentage of employees have completed EMP resilience awareness training, companies could obtain an additional designation for hosting similar awareness and training workshops for their customers. Finally, a company can earn the highest distinction for implementing EMP resilience best practices within their own business infrastructure, such as housing critical components and or backup equipment in EMP-hardened facilities, completing table-top exercises (akin to Dungeons and Dragons) or real-world exercises based on a simulated EMP attack.

Despite all of the capabilities of military and civilian personnel within the DoD, the US military and its installations depend on private infrastructure to operate. Even mission-critical assets cannot maintain independent functionality indefinitely, so EMP awareness and resilience training should be rolled out DoD-wide. Furthermore, as the force most likely mobilized in the event of an EMP attack, special attention should be paid to the National Guard. This would require their personnel to be preemptively trained on how to respond.

A diversified approach to EMP resilience means that the civilian sector will also play an important role. Civilian research institutions represent a vast multi-disciplinary pool of talent that could be useful in solving problems associated with EMP resilience, especially if there was government funding to support their research. Industry also plays a key role as the chief operational stakeholder and the principal custodian of the assets for which the battle of EMP resilience is set to be fought. Therefore, cooperation with industry will be key for any effort in EMP resilience to be successful. However, their diversity of operations and interdependence will pose some challenges. Furthermore, elected officials from local to state levels can use their influence to communicate and incentivize earnest participation of industry.

Collaboration between these organizations can potentially yield some interesting results.

The DHS and DoD research labs could help develop better ways for training military forces in the practical implementations of EMP resilience. A partnership between DHS and private industry can facilitate meaningful dialogue to identify common ground on priorities, boundaries, and desired outcomes. DHS can take the lead by developing a comprehensive framework of tangible and measurable EMP resilience-related key performance indicators (RKPIs) tailored to each sector of the industry. These RKPIs are then prioritized and shared with the respective industry representatives. Industry representatives must be encouraged to share their limitations in a frank and open dialogue with DHS so any necessary revisions for the RKPIs can be approved. Gaps between industry limitations and the DHS RKPI could provide an opportunity for further research or testing, either unilaterally or in partnership between DoD Research Labs and civilian research institutions. The findings derived from these research and testing endeavors will serve as a basis for informing training protocols and identifying best practices for both the DoD and private industry. Consequently, the DoD and private industry will be able to provide feedback on the effectiveness of the research findings on a larger scale.

            The conversation about electromagnetic pulse attacks must happen now as their effects make reactive approaches not only impractical, if not impossible but also dangerously irresponsible. Continual dialog between DHS and other research partners is crucial to providing relevant preparation and mitigation guidance. While immediately educating the force will help ensure sustainment if the US is attacked by such a weapon, greater efforts will be needed to create the EMP resilience necessary. Adaptive resilience can be achieved through continual feedback of research, communication, and training. Not only will these relationships enhance the interconnectedness between the entities involved, but its will also mitigate the susceptibility of critical assets within the United States. This is particularly crucial in an era where the nature of warfare has shifted away from conventional battlegrounds and civilians find themselves in closer proximity to potential threats than ever before.

Capt. Ronald McKinney Jr.
Capt. McKinney currently serves in the Texas Air National Guard as Flight Commander for Special Missions under the 221st Combat Communications Squadron at Hensley Field, Texas. In addition to ISC2 CISSP, CompTIA Sec+, Cisco CCNA, and DevNET Associate certs, he holds a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science (University of Texas at San Antonio, 2017), a Master of Science in Nutrition (Baylor University, 2012), a Bachelor of Science in Culinary Nutrition (Johnson & Wales University, 2007), and an Associate of Science in Culinary Arts (Johnson & Wales University, 2005). He previously served Active Duty as a Dietitian at Joint Base San Antonio. On the civilian side, he works as a Duty Manager in I.T., serves as Chief Operations Officer for a local cookie business, and owns a holding company.


This article is based on work conducted in Squadron Officer School's AU Advanced Research (AUAR) elective.


[1.] Secretary of Defense, National Defense Strategy of the United States of America (Washington, DC: Secretary of Defense, 2022),

[2.] Washington State Department of Health, “Electromagnetic Pulse Fact Sheet 320-090”, 2003, 3; Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack, Report of the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP), Vol. 1: Executive Report (Washington D.C: Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack, 2004), .

[4.] Brian Gutierrez, “Why the U.S. Once Set Off a Nuclear Bomb in Space”, National Geographic, July 16, 2021,; Charles N. Vittitoe, Did High-Altitude EMP Cause the Hawaiian Streetlight Incident? (Albuquerque N.M. Oak Ridge Tenn: Sandia National Laboratories, 1989),; Gilbert King, “Going Nuclear Over the Pacific”, Smithsonian Magazine, August, 15, 2012,

[5.] Washington State Dept. of Health, “Electromagnetic Pulse Fact Sheet 320-090”, 2003, 3.

[6.] Washington State Dept. of Health, “Electromagnetic Pulse Fact Sheet 320-090”, 2003, 3; Maj David Stuckenberg, R. James Woolsey, Douglas DeMaio, “Electromagnetic Defense Task Force 2.0 2019 Report” (Maxwell Air Force Base Alabama: Air University Press Curtis, 2019),

[7.] Secretary of Defense, 2022 National Defense Strategy, III.

[8.] Thomas Scanlon, Andrew Boyle, Shawn Harris, Brandon Dunlap, “SolarWinds Fallout Has Execs Asking: How Secure is Our Supply Chain?,” BrightTALK, March 30, 2021,

[9.] “Executive Order 13865 of March 26, 2019, Coordinating National Resilience to Electromagnetic Pulses” Federal Register, 84, no. 61 (March 29, 2019): 12041-12046,; U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Strategy for Protecting and Preparing the Homeland Against Threats of Electromagnetic Pulse and Geomagnetic Disturbances (Washington, DC: Department of Homeland Security, 2018),

[10.] Stuckenberg, Woolsey, DeMaio, “Electromagnetic Defense Task Force 2.0 2019 Report.”

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