By Anthony Furey (Originally published April 19, 2016 on The Toronto Sun. Re-printed with permission.)
Our government is finally starting to discuss how Canada — and the United States — remains vulnerable to major attacks to our critical infrastructure that could devastate our way of life.
It sounds like science fiction, but it’s real. If an electromagnetic pulse attack hit North America, it could take out our electronics for many months, killing millions of people through societal breakdown.
You’d think something of this severity would be discussed more. However we’re now making progress.
On Monday, the standing Senate committee on national security and defence hosted what the chairman, Conservative Sen. Daniel Lang, described as likely the first ever public forum on critical infrastructure attacks in Canada.
Peter Pry, a former CIA analyst and executive director of the Task Force on National and Homeland Security for U.S. Congress, explained to the committee that EMP is “the biggest existential threat that our civilization faces right now”.
China, Russia and North Korea all have the capacity to launch an EMP attack — in which a warhead would go off in the air, sending out high-energy waves that fry any electronics they pass through. If it goes off high enough, it can take out most of the grid in America and Canada — including power generation, water filtration, medical equipment and so on.
There are also naturally occurring EMP attacks — geomagnetic superstorms — that, Pry told the committee, NASA predicts has a 12% chance of happening every decade and would also wreak untold havoc.
So what do we do? Surprisingly, for a threat so advanced the solution is relatively simple. We need to harden our electrical grid with what are basically giant surge protectors, so that our electronics just go down for a few seconds rather than get fried forever. Several U.S. states are already undergoing the process.
“Our enemies are already protected against critical infrastructure attack,” intelligence expert Cynthia Ayers, who spent many years working at the National Security Agency, told the committee.
So why aren’t we already protected? It’s a bit of a catch-22. The problem with North America doing what needs to be done is politicians won’t craft the legislation and assign the money until the people demand it. But the public doesn’t know about it because the issue hasn’t been discussed much over the years, having actually been classified by the U.S. government until not that long ago.
“Until the government tells them,” Ayers said. “They’re not going to worry about it.”
She noted that if politicians don’t talk about it, people tend to assume it’s not a genuine cause for concern. The EMP conversation needs to be brought out from the shadows and normalized if any progress is to be made.
Some people might try to ignore or downplay the issue. Liberal Sen. Grant Mitchell spoke dismissively about the threat of EMP by trying to shift it into an unrelated debate about climate change. Let’s hope this isn’t a sign of things to come.
Perhaps Mitchell didn’t realize the topic appears to be on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s radar. The ministerial mandate letter sent to Ralph Goodale, public safety and emergency preparedness minister, instructed him to review threats to critical infrastructure.
Let’s hope Goodale and other MPs caught what happened Monday afternoon and keep the conversation going. The Senate committee report that comes out of this can’t just sit on the shelves and collect dust.
If during this four-year term Goodale can set the government gears in motion towards protecting our grid, it’ll be a great and lasting achievement by the Trudeau government. It’s time to act on this threat.