On Tuesday, March 26th, President Trump signed what may very well end up being the most important executive order of his presidency.
What makes it different from the 100 previous executive orders he has signed during his first two years in office, is this is one which could easily affect the entire country. It isn’t undoing something that President Obama did by executive order; nor is it taking care of a small group of people with a special need. Rather, executive order 13865, entitled, “Executive Order on Coordinating National Resilience to Electromagnetic Pulse” is about protecting America from foreign attack.
Trump fully understands his responsibility to protect the American people, perhaps better than any president in living memory. A number of his initiatives have stemmed from that single desire, such as his negotiations with Kim Jong-un of North Korea and his insistence on building a border wall.
But the President’s signing of this executive order is by no means the end of our risk of EMP attack and the damage that it can cause. As Dr. Pry, the nation’s leading expert on EMP said (quoting Winston Churchill), “Now this is not the end. It is not the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
What is that Beginning?
In 2001 Congress established the EMP Commission to study the risks that an enemy attack by high-altitude EMP (HEMP) would cause to our country’s critical infrastructure. For almost two decades, this commission has informed our government of the grave risks we face.
Then, in 2017, when tensions were high with North Korea, the Department of Defense (DOD) decided to defund the commission.
The Commission was frustrated, throughout its existence, with congressional indifference to the dangers of EMP. While many lawmakers individually acknowledged the danger of a rogue actor, like North Korea or Iran, using a HEMP to attack our country, there was not enough overall interest to pass the legislation needed to continue funding the EMP Commission, let alone doing anything to put their recommendations into effect.
The reason for this is, sadly, nothing more than politics.
More than anything, politicians are motivated by votes. Bills which will help see them reelected get passed. That generally means bills where people will see some sort of quick results. But anything that is done about EMP is going to take considerable time to show any results. Even then, the results will be hidden, not really visible until such a time when an enemy attempts to use an EMP attack against us. As such, it’s not likely to get anyone reelected.
Yet now, thanks to President Trump, the government is finally taking some action to protect our country against the threat of EMP. While the action that is going to be taken is essentially more studies, it is at least studies which are focused on developing actions to be taken to protect our infrastructure and preserve American lives.
The studies that President Trump has ordered will last from one to four years. But even then we won’t be protected. Rather, we will hopefully be at the point where we can begin to protect ourselves. This is why Dr. Pry’s quotation of Churchill is so important. The battle before us is still long; but it is not as long as recovering from an EMP would be.
One of the good things about President Trump, is that he does what he thinks is best for the country, regardless of the fallout. He’s not trying to do what will get him reelected (although he is already campaigning for that). He’s not doing what will make his party look good. He’s not trying to make any single special interest group happy with his actions.
He’s trying to do what is right; and that means fulfilling his responsibility to the American people.
What Does the Executive Order Say?
This is a fairly lengthy executive order, as executive orders go.
The key to it is that it establishes that “It is the policy of the United States to prepare for the effects of EMPs…” As President, Donald Trump is ordering the various departments of the government to undertake a series of actions, which will work towards ensuring that we, as a country, will survive an EMP, should any of our enemies send one our way.
As part of that, there are specific actions which various Secretaries and their departments are to undertake, with specific deadlines by which they have to complete those actions. In most cases, the time allotted is six months to a year. Personally, I think he is pushing the Executive Branch pretty hard to get some of those answers that quickly, especially since it will take a lot of coordination.
One of the challenges that will face these government agencies, as they complete this work, is that there is a fair amount of it that requires coordination with the private sector. While the government creates the regulations that the energy industry operates under, they don’t own the energy industry. Any actions they deem necessary will have to be implemented by private industry, not by the federal government.
Considering that the American Society of Civil Engineers has stated that the electric grid needs over a trillion dollars worth of upgrades, just to bring it up to snuff; the cost of protecting the grid will most likely be enormous. How that is going to be paid for has yet to be determined.
But assuming the government rises to the occasion and does what the president has called for, a year from now the various departments of our federal government should have a pretty good idea of what they need to do, in order to be ready for an EMP attack. Some of those actions will be to protect our critical infrastructure; some will be to mitigate the effects of the attack; and some will be focused on recovering from the effects, when they occur.
Interestingly enough, all of the deadlines, with the exception of one, fall before the end of Donald Trump’s first term in office. That’s comforting, in that we can be sure that when those reports arrive at the Oval Office, there will be someone who pays attention to them.
Then, and only then, might we have a beginning to the end.
How is that a Beginning to the End?
The work that is to be accomplished over the next couple of years, under this executive order, won’t protect us from a thing.
It is merely the preliminary work that needs to be done, so that the various branches of government can develop the scope of what needs to be done, develop a plan to do it and create a budget to accomplish the necessary changes. Then, and only then, can the work begin.
What does this mean?
It means that as a country, we are still several years away from being protected from attack by EMP. How long it will take to get us there is something yet to be determined. But considering that some of our electric grid is over 50 years old, and there are even parts which are over 100 years old, the work necessary will be extensive, unless some amazing new technologies are developed over the next couple of years.
There is no way, at this time, of estimating how long it will take to make our country’s electric grids safe from an EMP. The Texas grid is the closest, and they have just begun the work. It could very well take a decade to finish all that needs to be done, so that our infrastructure is safe.
This means more than just protecting the electrical grid. Having a working grid, without having the rest of our infrastructure protected isn’t going to help. Electric power going to refineries and gas pumps won’t ensure that we can fill our cars and trucks with gasoline, if the gas pumps and the refineries aren’t also protected from EMP. The ripple of effects from EMP permeates every part of society.
Protecting equipment from EMP is complicated. Not even all military equipment is so protected, let alone things which are designed for other branches of government, designed for commercial use, used in our infrastructure or sold for consumer use. Literally every piece of critical electronic equipment in any part of our infrastructure needs to be examined and possibly replaced.
Then it will be up to us, the consumers and citizens of this country, to take care of ourselves and our own needs. The government is going to be focused on taking care of the infrastructure; not focused on whether our refrigerators and air conditioners work. That will be our responsibility.
But until something happens at a national level, you and I can’t even start thinking about that. There are no EMP protected refrigerators on the market to buy, even if we wanted to. It will be some time; perhaps even a lot of time, before things trickle down to that point.
So the reality is that we are probably at least a decade away from safety. Considering that Russia, China, Iran and North Korea all have EMP capability worked into their war plans, and that North Korea has already threatened to attack us with an EMP, the big question is, are we going to make it through the next decade? Who will win this race; President Trump and his executive order or some currently unknown enemy?