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Running head: CYBER VULNERABILITY IN ELECTROMAGNETIC PULSE 1
Cyber Vulnerability in Electromagnetic Pulse
CYBER VULNERABILITY IN ELECTROMAGNETIC PULSE 2
Communications and information networks are vulnerable to natural disasters and physical
attacks using electromagnetic pulse (EMP). Real world problems occur in specific locations
throughout the world which interfere with parts of the information and communications networks
which are used in all sixteen critical infrastructure sectors listed and described on the Department
of Homeland Security official web site. This paper examines the vulnerability of the information
and communications networks to EMP used by the emergency services, energy and financial
sectors in the United States. This research paper aims to discuss countermeasures to mitigate the
negative impacts of an electromagnetic pulse to include the definition of EMP, electromagnetic
compatibility (EMC), electromagnetic vulnerability (EMV), electromagnetic interference (EMI)
and the electromagnetic spectrum. The purpose of this paper is to educate through research in
reference to the vulnerabilities of information and communication networks to EMP and ways to
mitigate the effects of EMP events.
Keywords: Electromagnetic pulse (EMP), electromagnetic vulnerability (EMV), electromagnetic
interference (EMI), electromagnetic compatibility (EMC) and electromagnetic spectrum.
CYBER VULNERABILITY IN ELECTROMAGNETIC PULSE 3
Cyber Vulnerability in Electromagnetic Pulse
This research explains the effects of an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack and the impact
on the emergency services, financial and energy sectors. The results of this research will show
the prominent cyber vulnerabilities to an EMP attack on these sectors and the use of technology
such as EMP hardening of communications and data networks and equipment to counter the
effects of an EMP attack. Several key terms must be addressed. These key terms are important
to have an understanding of the research in this paper. Electromagnet pulse (EMP) is a main
element of cyber vulnerability to EMP. EMP is the electromagnetic radiation from a nuclear
explosion caused by Compton-recoil electrons and photoelectrons from photons scattered in the
materials of the nuclear device or in a surrounding medium. Electromagnetic vulnerability
(EMV) is the characteristics of a system that cause it to suffer a definite degradation as a result of
having been subjected to a certain level of electromagnetic environmental effects.
Electromagnetic interference (EMI) is any electromagnetic disturbance that interrupts, obstructs,
or otherwise degrades or limits the effective performance of electronics and electrical equipment.
Electromagnetic compatibility (EMC) is the ability of systems, equipment, and devices that
utilize the electromagnetic spectrum to operate in their intended operational environments
without suffering unacceptable degradation or causing unintentional degradation because of
electromagnetic radiation or response (Defense Acquisition University, 2007). The
electromagnetic spectrum is the complete range of wavelengths from the longest radio waves and
extending through visible light all the way to the extremely short gamma rays (Musey, 2013).
Technology in the modern day has grown and is growing at an exponential rate making it
technically difficult to protect information and critical infrastructure which creates the potential
CYBER VULNERABILITY IN ELECTROMAGNETIC PULSE 4
for cyber vulnerabilities to electromagnetic pulse. Nuclear explosions and non-nuclear
electromagnetic pulse weapons create a high energy pulse of electrical and magnetic energy that
disrupts electronics and power grids for hundreds of miles. A high altitude electromagnetic
pulse (HEMP) releases energy in the form of gamma rays. Gamma rays collide with molecules
of air and produce Compton electrons (Ullrich, 1997). These electrons interact with the earth’s
magnetic field and produce an electromagnetic pulse which propagates in the downward
direction to the earth’s surface. The initial gamma rays and EMP move at the speed of light.
The effects of the EMP encompass an area along the line of sight from the point of detonation to
the earth’s horizon. Any systems that are in view of the detonation will experience some degree
An electromagnetic pulse consists of three components which are E1, E2 and E3. The E1
component is a free field energy pulse that occurs in a fraction of a second. The generated
electromagnetic shock damages, disrupts and destroys electronics and electronic systems in a
near simultaneous timeframe over a very large area. Faraday cage protection and other
mechanisms designed to defend against lighting strikes will not withstand this assault. Only
specialized technology integrated into equipment can harden the equipment against EMP. When
the electromagnetic distortion is large enough the E1 shock will destroy lightly EMP shielded
equipment in addition to most consumer electronics. Devices that incorporate antennas and
accept electronic signals cannot be shielded against E1. The result will be the destruction of
trillions of dollars of electronics that will fail after an EMP assault regardless of protective
measures. The E1 component is particularly concerning since it destroys Supervisory Control
and Data Acquisition (SCADA) components that are critical to the United States’ national
CYBER VULNERABILITY IN ELECTROMAGNETIC PULSE 5
The E2 component covers the same area as E1 but is more geographically widespread but
has a lower amplitude than E1. The E2 component has similar effects as lightning. E2 is not a
critical threat to critical infrastructure since most systems have built in protection against
occasional lightning strikes. The E2 threat compounds the E1 component since it strikes a
fraction of a second after the E1 component has damaged or destroyed the protective devices that
would have prevented damage from the E2 component. The result is that the E2 component
typically inflicts more damage than E1 since it bypasses traditional protective measures and
greatly amplifies the damage inflicted by the EMP.
The E3 component is a longer duration pulse the lasts up to one minute. It disrupts long
electricity transmission lines and causes damage to the electrical supply and distribution systems
connected to these lines. The E3 component of EMP is not a freely propagating wave; it is a
result of the electromagnetic distortion in the earth’s atmosphere. In this way the E3 component
is similar to a massive geomagnetic storm and is particularly damaging to long line infrastructure
such as electrical cables and transformers. A moderate blast of E3 could negatively impact up to
seventy percent of the power grid in the United States.
The timing of the three components is an important part of the equation in relation to the
damage that EMP generates. The damage from each strike amplifies the damage caused by each
succeeding strike. The combination of the three components causes irreversible damage to many
electronic systems. With the combined damage from earlier E1 and E2 blasts the E3 component
of the EMP has the potential to destroy the nation’s critical communications and electrical power
grid inflicting catastrophic damage on the United States. The EMP can easily and rapidly span
continent sized areas and can affect systems on land, sea and air. The EMP pulse from a nuclear
burst extends well past the visual horizon as seen from the point of the burst.
CYBER VULNERABILITY IN ELECTROMAGNETIC PULSE 6
Figure 1 depicts the EMP area of a burst at an altitude of 30, 120 and 300 miles above the
geographical center of the lower forty-eight states within the United States.
Figure 1. Electromagnetic Pulse Threats
Figure 1. EMP area by bursts at 30, 120 and 300 miles. “Electromagnetic Pulse
Threats” testimony to House National Security Committee. by: Smith, Gary. Young
Research & Publishing Inc., Naples, FL and Newport, RI. Jul 1997.
The EMP effects vary depending on numerous factors. One of the most important variables
is the altitude of the EMP blast. The most effective altitude to achieve the greatest EMP effect is
for the EMP blast to be above the visible horizon. If the detonation is to low most of the electro-
magnetic force from the EMP will be driven into the ground and create deadly nuclear fallout
that deprives the weapon of its non-casualty appeal. The damage is inversely related to the
CYBER VULNERABILITY IN ELECTROMAGNETIC PULSE 7
target’s distance from the epicenter of the detonation. The further away from the EMP blast’s
epicenter the weaker the EMP effects will be. The yield of the nuclear weapon is another factor
to consider. The higher the yield of weapon the greater the effect of the EMP. Even so since the
effects travel through electric lines and waterways and have secondary spill-over impacts on
other critical infrastructure it is technically difficult to predict the full extent of damage from a
large scale EMP attack.
In the event of a high yield weapon being detonated two-hundred-fifty miles above the
United States most if not all of the lower forty-eight states would be in the line of sight of the
detonation. The frequency range of such a detonation has an EMP that ranges from below one
hertz to one gigahertz. All modern types of electronics are at risk from Chicago to New Orleans
and from Los Angeles to Boston. A nuclear atmospheric test of a 1.4 megaton device conducted
by the United States in 1962 two-hundred-forty miles above Johnston Island caused electronic
systems to fail in Hawaii seven-hundred miles away (Ullrich, 1997). Not commonly known
about the effects of a high altitude EMP burst is that of the pumping of a large number of
electrons into the Van Allen A and B belts also known as the inner and outer radiation belts
around the Earth. The bomb induced electrons remain trapped in these belts for a period of time
in excess of one year. Global Position System (GPS) and Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites in
these belts that are not hardened to withstand electrons from a high altitude EMP blast would
meet their demise in a matter of days to weeks after such a blast.
Figure 2 which follows depicts the detonation of a nuclear weapon at a high altitude referred
to as a HEMP as well as the induced Gamma rays into the atmosphere along with the negative
impacts on communications networks and aircraft.
CYBER VULNERABILITY IN ELECTROMAGNETIC PULSE 8
Figure 2. Nuclear weapon detonation at high altitude. Gamma rays in atmosphere,
EMP impacts geostationary satellites & communications networks &aircraft
Figure 2. Nuclear weapon detonation at high altitude. Gamma rays in
atmosphere, EMP impacts geostationary satellites & communications
networks and aircraft. Federation of American Scientists. 2014,
Retrieved from http://www.fas.org/nuke/intro/nuke/emp.htm
When Gamma and x-rays from a high altitude detonation encounter a satellite in space they
excite and release electrons when the Gamma rays penetrate the interior of the satellite system.
This is referred to as System Generated Electromagnetic Pulse (SGEMP) since the accelerated
electrons create electromagnetic transients. Systems need to be configured with aperture
protection, grounding, special cables and insulating materials to survive the EMP effects.
SGEMP impacts space systems in three ways. The first is the x-rays causing electrons to collect
CYBER VULNERABILITY IN ELECTROMAGNETIC PULSE 9
on the skin of the space system. The electron charge is not distributed uniformly over the skin of
the space system which causes current to flow on the outside of the system. The current can
penetrate into the interior of a space system such as a communications satellite by entering
through the various apertures and solar cell power transmission systems. A second way in which
Gamma and x-rays can penetrate the skin of a space system is to produce electrons on the
interior walls of various compartments. The resulting interior electron currents generate cavity
electromagnetic fields that induce voltages on the electronics which produce spurious currents
that can burnout the electronics (Ullrich, 1997). The third way in which SGEMP impact space
systems electronics is the Gamma and x-rays produce electrons that propagate directly into
power and signal cables and wiring harnesses causing extraneous cable currents.
In addition to a high altitude burst producing an EMP there is also a low altitude nuclear
burst that produces a Source Region Electromagnetic Pulse (SREMP). In a low altitude nuclear
burst a vertical electron current is formed by the asymmetric deposition of electrons in the
atmosphere and the ground. The formation and decay of the current emits a pulse of
electromagnetic radiation in directions perpendicular to the current. The asymmetry from a low
altitude nuclear detonation occurs due some of the electrons emitting downward being trapped in
the Earth’s surface. Other electrons move upward and outward and can travel long distances in
the atmosphere producing ionization and charge separation. A SREMP can produce peak
electric fields greater than 100,000 volts per meter and peak magnetic fields greater than 4,000
amperes per meter (Federation of American Scientists, 2014). These are much larger than those
from HEMP and pose a considerable threat to military and civilian systems. The surface of the
Earth is a conductor of electricity and provides a return path for electrons at the outer part of the
deposition region toward the burst point. Positively charge ions travel shorter distances than
CYBER VULNERABILITY IN ELECTROMAGNETIC PULSE 10
electrons and at lower velocities and the ions remain behind and recombine with the electrons
returning through the ground. The result is very strong magnetic fields are produced in the
region of ground zero when the nuclear detonation occurs near to the surface of the Earth.
EMP whether from a high or low altitude nuclear burst does not differentiate between power
grids, telecommunication and computing systems. Systems that are not hardened against EMP
such as commercial power grids, computer and telecommunication systems remain vulnerable to
widespread prolonged outages and disruptions. The Homeland Security Science and Technology
Act of 2010 contains provisions for the establishment of a commission on the Protection of
Critical Electric and Electronic Infrastructures which will serve to ensure improvements in EMP
hardening of telecommunication and computing systems and power grids.
EMP Vulnerabilities in Emergency Services Sector
The emergency services sector consists of interacting national, regional, state and local
communications and network systems interconnected over large geographical areas. The
emergency services sector systems are under the control of national, regional and state control
centers. These systems depend upon wireless and fixed communications, broadband, radio
frequencies and fiber optics. Communications and data networks are vulnerable to natural
disasters such as hurricanes, floods, earthquakes and physical attacks such as an electromagnetic
pulse attack. The natural disasters occur in specific geographical areas and disrupt and/or
disables specific parts of the network. An EMP attack on the other hand not only disrupts and
disables communications and data networks it also destroys them permanently over a large
geographical are unless the equipment is hardened to withstand an EMP. Hardening of
equipment used in communications and data networks is not an absolute guarantee that the
equipment will not be damaged in some manner by an EMP (Cohen, Modiano, Neumayer,
CYBER VULNERABILITY IN ELECTROMAGNETIC PULSE 11
Zussman, 2011, p1610). Since an EMP is an intense energy field it can instantaneously
overload, disrupt and/or disable numerous circuits over a large geographic area depending upon
the height of the detonation of the nuclear weapon. An EMP attack would have disastrous
effects on the U.S. telecommunication capabilities which are used by the emergency services
sector. Hardening emergency services systems is a solid countermeasure to an EMP; however,
there is not a countermeasure that can achieve one-hundred percent protection from an EMP.
Emergency services use personal type computer systems especially at the local governmental
level which often do not possess the financial resources to purchase computers which are
hardened against EMP. Computers in use in this sector that contain an 8088 processor based
system up to current 2016 computer processors are extremely vulnerable to fast transient
electromagnetic pulses and double exponential pulse shapes from EMP. The susceptibility to
EMP increases significantly with each computer generation (Camp, Garbe, 2006). The
countermeasure to this issue is for the federal government to either provide EMP hardened
equipment directly to state and local governments or to provide the financial resources to enable
the state and local governments to make purchases of EMP hardened equipment. The state and
local governments and the federal government would be well served by using federal
government contracts to purchase EMP hardened computer systems since the federal government
contract already contain the specifications for the EMP hardened computing systems. Doing so
would eliminate each state and local governments from using federal financial grants to purchase
a myriad of computing systems that may not be able to interconnect with emergency service
systems at the regional and federal levels and may not meet required standards for EMP
hardening for computing systems. The interconnectivity throughout the network for the
emergency services sector and ensuring all of the computing systems meet EMP hardening
CYBER VULNERABILITY IN ELECTROMAGNETIC PULSE 12
specifications takes priority over each state and local governments from acquiring their own
EMP hardened computing systems.
EMP Vulnerabilities in Energy Sector
Depending on the yield of the nuclear weapon and the height of the burst a nuclear EMP can
destroy large portions of the U.S. power infrastructure. An EMP attack would destroy the
electronics and digital circuitry in a large geographic area denying electrical power to homes,
businesses and military facilities that are not hardened against EMP. The United States is
dependent on electricity to power our health, financial, transportation, and business systems. If
the electrical power grid in the United States was ever lost over a large for an extended period of
time it would have catastrophic and lethal consequences for the population and the economy. It
would also degrade our military defenses. The United States’ digital dependence grows every
year and along with the dependence so does the vulnerability to EMP.
Computer simulations carried out in March 2010 at the Oak Ridge National Laboratories
demonstrated that an electromagnetic pulse from a nuclear device detonated at high attitude
could destroy or permanently damage major sections of the National power grid. According to
this Oak Ridge Study, the collapse of the power system could impact 130 million Americans,
and require four to ten years to fully recover and impose economic costs of $1 to $2 trillion
(Graham, 2012). The National electrical power grid has almost no backup capability in the event
of a power collapse from an EMP attack. Existing bulk power reliability standards don't address
EMP vulnerabilities. In addition, with most of the Nation's electrical power system under private
ownership who view an EMP attack as highly unlikely there has been little preparation for a
long-term electrical power collapse by private industry. Some progress has been made though
by the U.S. federal government in mitigating the EMP threat. The United States has conducted
CYBER VULNERABILITY IN ELECTROMAGNETIC PULSE 13
numerous exercises to test readiness against natural events such as hurricanes there has not been
a nationwide exercise to help prepare for severe consequences of a National power outage from
an EMP attack. The Grid Reliability and Infrastructure Defense (GRID) Act amends the Federal
Power Act to permit the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to issue new industry
standards to protect critical infrastructure from cyber and EMP attacks.
EMP Vulnerabilities in Financial Sector
The financial sector relies extensively upon computing systems and inter-networking to
conduct daily business. Banks are connected with the Society for Worldwide Interbank
Financial Telecommunications (SWIFT) network. SWIFT provides secure network for
transmitting messages between financial institutions; a set of syntax standards and market
practices for financial messages and a set of connection software and services which enable
financial institutions to transmit messages over the SWIFT network (Hammerli, 2012, p302).
The transmission protocol over the internet used between banks and clients to place orders and
obtain information is vulnerable to an EMP attack. The vulnerability is increasing daily as the
use and dependence on electronics and automated systems continues to grow exponentially. The
impact of EMP is asymmetric in relation to potential adversaries who are not as dependent upon
modern electronics as the United States is. The efficiency of the financial sector is generated
through the use of electronics and automated systems and that is also a potential vulnerability.
The current vulnerability of the financial sector to EMP attack both invites and rewards attack.
Correcting the vulnerabilities of the financial sector are feasible and within the national
means and resources to accomplish. It will require the combined effort of private and public
sectors of the United States. The appropriate response to the EMP threat is a balance of
CYBER VULNERABILITY IN ELECTROMAGNETIC PULSE 14
prevention, planning, training, maintaining situational awareness, protection and preparations for
recovery. This will reduce the incentives for the adversaries of the United States to conduct an
attack against America. Even though EMP was first considered during the Cold War as a
means of paralyzing U.S. retaliatory forces and eliminating America’s strategic deterrent of
responding in kind with an EMP attack. The risk of an EMP attack today is even greater since
several potential adversaries of the United States are seeking nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles,
and asymmetric ways to overcome the United States’ conventional superiority by using one or a
number of nuclear weapons to mount an EMP attack (Graham, 2008, p8). This would seriously
impact the financial system in the United States. Failure to take action to harden financial
communications and data networks to EMP attack will leave the critical national financial
infrastructure that are necessary for society to function at very high risk.
In summary, by implementing the following recommendations the effects of EMP can be
mitigated to ensure continued operation of critical infrastructure sectors: (1) harden equipment,
power grids, telecommunication and computing systems against EMP by using EMP shielding
technologies and underground facilities; (2) all levels of government from local to federal use
U.S. government federal EMP technical specifications and government contracts to acquire
EMP hardened telecommunication, power grid and computing systems and equipment; (3) local,
state and the federal government not use independent EMP specifications and contracts to
acquire EMP hardened telecommunications and computer systems and equipment to prevent
interconnectivity technical issues between telecommunications and computer systems at the
local, state and federal government levels and to avoid higher costs and duplication of effort; (4)
the U.S. federal government serve as the decision maker for all EMP technical specifications for
CYBER VULNERABILITY IN ELECTROMAGNETIC PULSE 15
telecommunication, power grid and computer systems contracts; (5) that the effectiveness of
EMP hardening have a higher priority than the cost; (6) the least cost technically acceptable
EMP hardening products not be selected for acquisition by the federal government or any other
level of government; (7) the EMP products with the greatest effectiveness to withstand an EMP
be selected during the federal acquisition process; (8) Department of Homeland Security (DHS)
to “make clear its authority and responsibility to respond to an EMP attack” by developing
contingency plans in cooperation with appropriate federal, state and local agencies, and industry
(Carafano, Spring, Weitz, 2011); (9) that DHS develop response protocols for an EMP attack and
regularly practice this response through exercises with relevant government agencies and
industry groups (Carafano et al. 2011); (10) DHS work with the Department of Energy and
industry groups to address vulnerabilities in the U.S. electrical infrastructure; (11) the cost of
critical infrastructure improvement to withstand an EMP attack be divided between the U.S.
federal government and industry.
In conclusion, this research provided a thorough review of cyber vulnerabilities in EMP
attacks. It addressed high altitude EMP (HEMP), low altitude nuclear bursts that produce Source
Region Electromagnetic Pulse (SREMP) and System Generated Electromagnetic Pulse
(SGEMP), cyber vulnerabilities to EMP in the emergency services, energy and financial sectors
and countermeasures. This project also summarized the key issues and provided
recommendations to resolve the issues. Some of the methods discussed include the Department
of Homeland Security working with private industry and the Department of Energy to
conducting nationwide exercises to assess preparedness for an EMP attack; EMP hardening of
telecommunication, power grid and computer systems to ensure their continued survivability
CYBER VULNERABILITY IN ELECTROMAGNETIC PULSE 16
during and after an EMP attack. The framework of a combined effort by the Department of
Homeland Security, Department of Defense, Department of Energy, state governments and
private industry going forward serves to ensure the critical infrastructure of the United States
continues to successfully function in the event of an EMP attack.
CYBER VULNERABILITY IN ELECTROMAGNETIC PULSE 17
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CYBER VULNERABILITY IN ELECTROMAGNETIC PULSE 18
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