My January 25, 2021 Newsmax article emphasized that President Biden’s flurry of Executive Orders and Presidential Directives left in place one of the most important Trump Executive Orders: The March 26, 2019 Executive Order 13865, "Coordinating the Resilience to Electromagnetic Pulses." It called for a whole of government activity led by the National Security Council to counter the manmade and natural existential electromagnetic pulse (EMP) threat.
Moreover, I emphasized that we have the technical know-how to accomplish this objective; actually, have known how for decades but have not done so for political — not technical or financial reasons. I expressed hope that the Biden administration will use this knowledge to improve this disappointing record.
I believe President Biden provided such an opportunity in his January 20, 2021 Executive Order 13990, "Executive Order on Protecting Public Health and the Environment and Restoring Science to Tackle the Climate Crisis"—Section 7(c). It suspended for 90-days President Trump’s May 1, 2020 Executive Order-13920, "Securing the United States Bulk Power System" and charged the Secretary of Energy and the Director of White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) jointly to "consider whether to recommend" a replacement order.
But suspending EO-13920 for 90-days adds opportunities for China and/or others to introduce both hardware and software malware into our electrical systems—without serving any useful purpose; canceling it would be a terrible mistake and escalate such opportunities. Improving EO-13920 should be the objective of the Department and Energy (DOE) and OMB in executing Section 7(c) of EO-13990.
That approach would be consistent with EO-13920, which dealt with foreign economic and cyber threats to the electric power grid — and directed the Secretary of Energy during the following year to lead a whole of government effort to counter foreign adversaries that "are increasingly creating and exploiting vulnerabilities in the U.S. bulk-power system, which provides the electricity that supports our national defense, vital emergency services, critical infrastructure, economy, and way of life." Certainly, the Biden administration should assess this product and, where possible, improve it.
Incoming Biden administration authorities should begin by evaluating the status of Trump administration efforts, e.g., as reported by outgoing Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette, and elaborated with additional links, in a December 17, 2020 prohibition order to reduce the risks posed by entities associated with the People’s Republic of China to the U.S. bulk-power system. Our electric power grid already has over 200 large transformers purchased from China — and they may include malware for a cyberattack. There are also threats from others — e.g., Russia, Iran, North Korea and even terrorists. Such potential threats should be addressed as quickly as possible.
And there are additional problems with EO 13920 that the DOE and OMB could rectify in executing EO-13990. For example:
- EO-13920 is focused on a top-down directed (from Washington down but not to a local level) operation formulated almost entirely on the "Bulk Power Grid," which according to the EO’s definition “includes transmission lines rated at 69,000 volts (69 kV) or more, but does not include facilities used in the local distribution of electric energy." The thus omitted “Distribution Grid” is the final link in the electric power grid that delivers electricity to businesses, military operations, emergency management, and citizens—and composes 90-prcent of the overall grid and about 70-percent of the cost of the combined Transmission and Distribution network.
- EO-13920 did not mention the existential threat posed by natural (from major solar emissions) or manmade EMP that I consider to be within the cyber warfare domain, since it affects the same electronic data control and communication network systems that are the targets of cyberattacks. The electromagnetic fields from a single manmade or natural EMP event can simultaneously disable electronics over continental-scale regions. Such asymmetrical effects make EMP arguably the most severe threat that could be imposed on our cyber systems—as was authoritatively identified years ago by the congressional EMP Commission.
In her confirmation hearing before the Energy and Natural Resources Committee to become Secretary of Energy, former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm’s encouraging response to questions by Senator Murkowski (R-Alaska) indicated that she understands at least the first of these omissions. Governor Granholm response:
“. . . We have 5 million miles of distribution wires, 200,000 miles of high-voltage electric wires. I haven’t been fully briefed on the national security, and the confidential aspects of the SolarWinds cyber hack, but clearly that’s one example and we are getting hacked all the time and attacked all the time. We will have, inside the DOE, a person at a very high level that is responsible for making sure the response to this is coordinated. We have to harden our electric grid for protection of our energy system. I hope that this is a part of the infrastructure package that will be coming from the administration as well.” (Emphasis added)
Since her answer was entirely in the context of the cyber threat, it remains for the Biden administration to assure that the existential EMP threat is understood to be included as a critical aspect of the nation’s cyber security policy. It obviously should be included in all appropriately comprehensive analyses.
Two decades ago, the Congressional EMP Commissioners were informed by Russian Generals that if Russia really intended to destroy the United States, it would employ a high-altitude nuclear EMP attack to cripple our power, communication, and other critical life support infrastructure with such an existential EMP threat.
The commissioners were also informed that Russia’s knowledge of how to build a “low-yield Super EMP nuclear weapon” was "accidentally" shared with North Korea.
No doubt North Korea’s ally, Iran also has this knowledge. Also China, of course. All four adversaries include EMP in their military doctrine. Obviously, it could be a fatal mistake for us foolishly to assume for our protection that our adversaries are ignorant about EMP weapon design.
At least some Biden administration leaders seem to understand key aspects of the existential EMP threat and shortcomings in previous executive branch analyses.
So, will they respond effectively?