Developing Threats: Electro-Magnetic Pulses (EMP) - Defence Committee Contents

1  Introduction

The threat

1.  Today's society places an ever-growing reliance on technology. Modern infrastructures such as power, telecommunications and water systems, businesses, industries and services are now interdependent to a very significant degree, and disruption can therefore spread very quickly as the effects cascade through connected systems. A failure of the national grid for example, would inevitably have repercussions for a wide range of businesses and services, from energy supplies, water processing, traffic control and logistical systems and even parts of the finance sector. Similarly a growing reliance is placed on satellite-based technology such as GPS (global positioning system); for instance the operation of financial markets relies on accurate timing supplied by GPS. The UK military are greatly reliant on a range of electronic communications and navigation systems.

2.  Such technologies are known to be vulnerable to the effects of space weather and other electromagnetic activity, such as that which would result from the detonation of a nuclear weapon at high altitude. The potential threat of EMP (Electro-Magnetic Pulse) used as a weapon against the UK also poses a significant risk to UK National Security. Understanding the extent of these risks and the need to mitigate them is therefore at least partly within the remit of the MoD.

3.   For 50 years, governments concentrated on the threat of deliberate attack, and electromagnetic pulse was regarded as a problem to be addressed by the military. It was only in 2008 that space weather was accepted as a threat of which civil authorities should also take account.

How likely?

4.  The National Security Strategy (NSS) published in October 2010 itemised several tiers of "priority risks" which had been identified by the National Security Risk Assessment. The highest, Tier 1, risks included "a major accident or national hazard which requires a national response". Space weather is referred to as part of this identification:

We also monitor new and emerging risks, such as the potential impact of severe space weather on our infrastructure. Given the range of hazards and accidents that can cause large-scale disruption and the very severe impacts of the worst of these, this risk grouping is judged to be one of the highest priority risk areas. Our approach is to plan for the consequences of potential civil emergencies no matter what the cause.[1]

5.  Written evidence from the Government suggests that a severe space weather event, with resulting damage, may occur in the next few years:

The impact of EMP events caused by nuclear devices would be very severe but the likelihood is currently considered to be low. Non-nuclear EMP devices exist and the risks are being kept under review but are not currently considered to be sufficient to warrant recognition as a national security risk. Severe space weather, which might cause geomagnetic storms impacting the Earth's magnetosphere, has been the subject of extensive research over the past year. The likelihood of a severe space weather event is assessed to be moderate to high over the next five years, with the potential to cause damage to electrically conducting systems such as power grids, pipelines and signalling circuits.[2]

6.  The most recent published version of the National Risk Register (2010) contains no explicit reference to space weather or EMP events and the only reference made to electricity outages assumes that there is no actual system damage.[3] However, space weather is currently under assessment by the Government for the National Risk Assessment and Risk Register 2011.

7.  While there are a number of similarities between the effects of severe space weather and deliberate EMP attack —not least in that neither is likely to respect national boundaries—they merit separate treatment both by the Government and in this Report.

The inquiry

8.  On 13 September 2011, the Committee announced an inquiry with the following terms of reference:

  • The extent of any threat posed to UK electronic infrastructure by EMP events caused by space weather events, nuclear weapons detonated at high altitude or other EMP weapons;
  • The likelihood that a viable EMP weapon can or will be used by either state or non-state actors;
  • The extent to which space weather is forecast and the effectiveness of early warning systems that may be in place;
  • The potential impact of such events for both civilian and military infrastructure;
  • Ways of mitigating electromagnetic pulse events, either targeted or naturally occurring;
  • The resources available in respect of research and development in this field;
  • Contingencies in place to react to a large-scale loss of UK electronic infrastructure, and the role of the military in such an event;
  • The broader security of UK electronic and space infrastructure, particularly satellites and satellite navigation systems and the risk posed by space debris.

9.  This inquiry is intended to be the first of a series into emerging threats. We acknowledge that we may, as our first contribution to the debate, have raised more questions than can, at this stage, be answered.

10.  The Committee invited the submission of written evidence by 14 October 2011. We received evidence from HM Government, the Electronic Infrastructure Security Council (EISC), the US Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), the Chair of the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electro-Magnetic Pulse Attack (the EMP Commission), the Office of Electric Reliability, the International Electrotechnical Committee, Peter Taylor of Ethos Consultancy, the Royal College of Physicians, the National Grid and Research Councils UK. We held one oral evidence session, hearing evidence from Professor Richard Horne of the British Antarctic Survey, Dr David Kerridge of the British Geological Survey, Avi Schnurr, Chairman and Chief Executive of EISC, Chris Train of the National Grid, Nick Harvey MP, Minister of State for the Armed Forces, Charles Hendry MP, Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, Sir John Beddington, Chief Scientific Adviser to HM Government, David Ferbrache, head of Cyber, Ministry of Defence and John Tesh, Deputy Director, Civil Contingencies Secretariat, Cabinet Office. We are grateful to all who assisted us, and particularly to Michael Hapgood and Philip Sturley, our Specialist Advisers[4] and to our staff.

11.  It is noteworthy, and indicative of the complexity of the subject, that the Government evidence was provided by the MoD in consultation with officials from other Government Departments and the National Security Council.

12.  We note that the Science and Technology Committee, in its Report on Scientific Advice to Government, has commented on the implications for the UK of severe space weather events. Our own Report, to some extent, builds on theirs, and we are grateful to them.[5]

1   Cabinet Office, National Risk Register of Civil Emergencies, 2010 Edition, para 3.44  Back

2   Ev 20  Back

3   Cabinet Office, National Risk Register of Civil Emergencies, 2010 Edition Back

4   For the interests of the advisers, see Minutes of the Defence Committee , 13 July 2010, and 13 September 2011. Back

5   Science and Technology Committee, Third Report of Session 2010-11, Scientific Advice and Evidence in Emergencies, HC 498, para 18 Back

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Prepared 22 February 2012