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

4  The MoD and EMP

MoD resilience to EMP events

71.  We were concerned to establish how resilient MoD equipment and processes would be against EMP events.

72.  Written evidence from the MoD indicates that there are three main capabilities that rely on space-based assets:

  • Satellite communications (SATCOM). SATCCOM and data networks enable the command and control of deployed forces and the timely exploitation and dissemination in intelligences data.
  • Position Navigation and Timing (PNT). Precise PNT solutions derived from the US Global Positioning System (GPS) enable the orchestration of complex military operations while reducing the risk of collateral damage and fratricide.
  • Earth Observation (EO). Earth Observation capabilities (most of which are derived from allies and commercial providers) provide the necessary strategic indicators and warnings, and the intelligence to support operational and tactical planning.[69]

The MoD told us that the majority of these capabilities are hardened or augmented "to withstand a reasonable worst case space weather event", and that defence procurement standards require "appropriate hardening against nuclear weapon effects, including EMP" but notes that severe space weather or HEMP "could degrade the ability of [Earth Observation] satellites to collect and disseminate data in a timely manner".[70]

73.  Although the MoD were confident that the satellite services and the positioning, navigation and Earth observation systems were reasonably protected, we were worried about other, terrestrial, equipment. The Minister said that generally defence equipment was more resilient and hardened than its civilian counterparts but that:

it would be unrealistic, bluntly, to seek to harden all military assets against a threat of space weather and EMP, but as the overall likelihood of a severe damaging event is relatively low in our view, we focus our attention on what we consider to be a critical subset of systems.[71]

David Ferbrache explained other precautions taken in case of the failure of equipment:

We also put quite a bit of time and effort into reversion modes and fall-back. GPS is the classic. It's a military system anyway—US military satellites. It has a degree of resilience against a lot of the space weather scenarios we have talked about. But we also routinely practise reversion modes. So, yes, we do still train people in maps and compasses—good old-fashioned navigation. We also train them in how to use inertial navigation systems, and we routinely practise GPS jamming. As Mr Harvey has set out, we tend to include electronic warfare routinely in our exercises and training. We play through a lot of degradation modes and reversion modes. I am not sanguine; the threat will evolve over time.[72]

74.  HEMP is, of course, a different matter from space weather. David Ferbrache explained that hardening the equipment was the second line of defence after prevention:

We are very much focused on trying to ensure that that event does not occur in the first place, which is all about counter-proliferation action to prevent the acquisition of nuclear weapons or ballistic missile capabilities. Deterrent capability is one of the areas that we make absolutely certain is protected against EMP, in terms of our ability then to retaliate against such an aggressive act. Then we go into hardening of key strategic communication systems, too. It is a threat we are keeping a weather eye on, to use that phrase, because the concern downstream is that we may well see a proliferation of both nuclear weapons capabilities and appropriate launch systems.[73]

75.  In view of the importance of the nuclear deterrent, we sought assurance that the Nuclear Firing Chain was secure. The MoD assured us that:

As part of the UK's strategic nuclear deterrent, the Nuclear Firing Chain is designed and maintained to assure the UK's ability for retaliatory action should we be subject to a nuclear attack, and this has been the case since the days of the Cold War.

The MoD audits the integrity of the Nuclear Firing Chain regularly and acts to ensure that it maintains the highest possible standards, but it would not be appropriate to comment on specific measures here.[74]

76.  We note the MoD's assurance that the Nuclear Firing Chain is designed and maintained to assure the UK's ability deterrent and retaliatory action should the UK be subject to a nuclear attack.

Responsibility in the MoD

77.  It became clear in the course of our inquiry that there is some confusion within the MoD as to who has responsibility for matters relating to resilience to or development of EMP weapons, nuclear or otherwise. There was some disagreement between them and the Committee on appropriate witnesses. When we invited the MoD's Chief Scientific Adviser to give oral evidence to this inquiry we were told that he had no responsibility in this area,[75] despite his stated role being to "provide strategic advice to Defence on science and technology in support of military operations and future capabilities".[76] Subsequently, during the oral evidence session, it became clear that the Minister and Government Chief Scientific Adviser Sir John Beddington, and perhaps even Mark Welland himself, were of a different view, and that Mr Welland would have been an appropriate witness.[77] The Minister apologised for any misunderstanding.

78.  EMP disturbances pose a serious risk, not only to civil infrastructure, but to military systems and ultimately national security. There must be a clear line of responsibility within the MoD; an appearance is given that the MoD is unwilling to take these threats seriously. The Government must make clear in its response to this Report exactly where lead responsibility in relation to EMP disturbances lies within the MoD.

79.  We asked the MoD if, when it acquired information about a particular vulnerability in the wider infrastructure it passed the information on to those responsible for civil infrastructure. Mr Harvey said "we do share it with the rest of government. It is also the case that a lot of industries will have some direct information coming to them on this".[78] David Ferbrache added that "we have had a reasonably good understanding of the effects of EMP for some time and that has been reflected in a complete suite of defence standards, which are taken up by respective industries as well".[79]

80.  The MoD has access to a great deal of scientific information regarding nuclear and non-nuclear EMP devices. While there is an understandable sensitivity to such information, the MoD must make sure that where security considerations permit, relevant information is shared with civil infrastructure providers that may be at risk.

MoD role in responding to an emergency

81.  The Ministry of Defence does not expect to play a primary role in the case of a national EMP event, for instance in restoring the National Grid. Nonetheless, a severe space weather or HEMP event is likely to meet the definition of an "emergency" under the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 as "an event or situation which threatens serious damage to human welfare" or "war or terrorism which threatens serious damage to security".[80] In this case, the armed forces might be called upon to assist as with any other major emergency. Nick Harvey said:

As a national asset, defence would not expect to be called on, except in the case of very large-scale incidents. In that sense, if something did kick off, rather as Mr Tesh indicated earlier, we would expect to be brought into the equation through the COBR process. The scientific community shares information across Departments all the time. I am sure that it is keeping an eye on the evolving picture.[81]

82.  The reactive posture described by the MoD appears somewhat complacent. Prior wargaming and planning is required to assess the likely involvement of MoD resources in dealing with the consequences of EMP events.

69   Ev 21 Back

70   Ev 22 Back

71   Q 101 Back

72   Q 101 Back

73   Q 90 Back

74   Ev 51 Back

75   Ev 55 Back

76   Supplementary Memorandum from the Government to the House of Lords, Science and Technology Committee, Third Report of 2009-10, Setting priorities for publically funded research, HL 104-II, p 54 Back

77   Qq 100 and 105 Back

78   Q 98 Back

79   Q 96 Back

80   Ev 20 Back

81   Q 105 Back

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Prepared 22 February 2012