NORTHCOM Moving to Counter the EMP Threat!

Family Security Matters

The Pentagon recently announced that Raytheon is receiving a $700 million contract to prep the Cheyenne Mountain base in Colorado for the return of US Aerospace Command, built in the 1960s to respond to a Soviet nuclear strike; this new plan is to help counter a possible EMP attack by a rogue nation. This explicit acknowledgement of the EMP threat is a most welcome development.  Hopefully, the U.S. “powers that be” will also take complementary steps to assure the survival of the American people in case of such an attack-and here are some hopeful signs this may be possible.

Several recent reports apparently stem from a very informative Pentagon press conference by the Commander of North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM), Adm. Bill Gortney. (Click here for the transcript). They reinforce a well-known assessment that the first step to solving any problem, is to understand and define the problem. 

So far the essence and importance of these comments have not reached the mainstream press, but many have been picked up and reliably elaborated by the defense publications, Defense News and Defense One. From my perspective, their most important observations are:

  • The shift to the Cheyenne Mountain base in Colorado is designed to safeguard the command’s sensitive sensors and servers from a potential electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack.
  • In 2006, officials decided to move the Cold War operations to Petersen Air Force base in Colorado Springs, but retained the Cheyenne bunker as an alternative command center if needed. That move followed hundreds-of-millions-of-dollars-worth of modernization work at Cheyenne after 9/11 that can now be exploited by supplementing pertinent communications gear, hardened to withstand EMP, which can occur naturally or result from a high-altitude nuclear explosion. The suggestion is that communications is the primary concern, associated with providing accurate, timely and unambiguous Integrated Tactical Warning/Attack Assessment (ITW/AA) of air, missile and space threats. Air Force Space Command is responsible for these operations.
  • Under the 10-year contract, Raytheon is supposed to deliver “sustainment” services and also unspecified work at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska.
  • In June 2013, then-U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, speaking on the roadway leading into the mountain, stated, “These facilities and the entire complex of NORAD and NORTHCOM represent the nerve center of defense for North America.” 


The ITW/AA mission was NORAD’s primary mission throughout the Cold War. NORAD also had a short-lived ballistic missile defense (BMD) role-ending when the North Dakota Safeguard site was shut down in 1976, four years after the Antiballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty was signed and after only a brief period of operations.  The ABM Treaty limited the U.S. and the Soviet Union to a single site each-theirs remains operational to this day. But a single site ended serious U.S. efforts to provide a homeland defense against ballistic missiles until President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) and President George W. Bush’s 2002 withdrawal from the ABM Treaty.  After 9/11 and the creation of NORTHCOM, Admiral Gortney’s role now includes a key role in all homeland defense missions, not just a revival of its ABM, now called the ballistic missile defense (BMD), mission. For example, the National Guard plays an important role in NORTHCOM. Among other things, the Guard operates our BMD sites and plays important air and theater missile defense roles. Under its Defense Support of Civil Authorities (DCASA) role, NORTHCOM also supports local authorities, law enforcement and first responders in their homeland security missions.


Important additional comments bearing on NORTHCOM’s BMD role, based on Admiral Gortney’s Press conference and also referred to in other accounts-particularly the Israeli reports from Arutz Sheva on April 12, 2015, are:

  • North Korea has successfully miniaturized a nuclear warhead to put on an ICBM. [Comment: Such a warhead could be designed to maximize EMP effects.]
  • North Korea can mount a “light” nuclear warhead on its intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), particularly its mobile ICBM known as the KN-08-which, according to Admiral Gortney, is “very difficult” to counter, because following the mobile ICBM is difficult, thereby limiting efficient warning before its launch.
  • North Korea and maybe Iran are capable of an EMP attack on the United States. The current BMD systems can counter ICBM attacks.


These are welcome comments on our BMD capability as far as they go.  But Admiral Gortney was silent on other serious threats, such as a Cold War vintage Fractional Orbital Bombardment System (FOBS) that approaches the United States from over the South Polar regions-or short or medium range ballistic missiles launched from ships off our coasts, especially in the Gulf of Mexico.  We are vulnerable to these threats from North Korea and Iran, as discussed in many of my previously messages.

This omission risks misleading the public-but, as noted at the outset of this message, the recognition of an important EMP threat is an important first step to addressing it. And it is most important that the Commander of NORTHCOM recognizes it-and urges the powers that be to address the full complement of associated threats.

Seeking to assure that the ITWAA and associated command, control and communications missions can survive and operate through an EMP attack may assure that our surviving military forces can retaliate-as was the Cold War mission. But it does not, by itself, protect other critical infrastructure upon which our survival depends.

In particular, if lose the electric grid from a natural, cyber or EMP attack-a possibility that Admiral Gortney also recognized during the Q&A period of his press conference, that loss of all electricity could shut down indefinitely our just-in-time economy and within a year lead to the death of most Americans. NORTHCOM should be leading the charge to assure that that concern is also recognized and countered. 

Hopefully, Admiral Gortney will be joining those working to develop viable countermeasures to this existential threat. A number of key ingredients are either directly or indirectly under his cognizance and/or control.

As noted at the outset of this message, identifying the problem is the critically important first step to solving it.  He has taken that step. High Frontier and our partners stand ready to help wherever we can.

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