Retired admiral Lee Gunn was in Reno this March to speak to the National Security Forum of Northern Nevada. Gunn’s remarks to the Reno group were wide-ranging, raising some issues about which the public has seldom heard. He said the nation’s electricity system works well given the fact that it wasn’t designed. Rather, it is a patchwork of systems. In the early days of electricity, he said, lines were stretched to a county line and then stopped there. It would be picked up by another jurisdiction months or years later.
That system is pretty vulnerable, he said. The leading source of attacks on power facilities is—squirrels. There are also more than 200 annual incidents of what he termed “mischief”—non-political attacks on such facilities. As an example, he said, rifle shots were fired at the Metcalf transformer.
station near San Jose on April 16, 2013. The Silicon Valley and its region was without electricity for half a day, and the Metcalf station was shut down for half a year because of the damage to the transformer. Power companies, he said, do not keep spare transformers on hand because they are so expensive, and it takes months to build replacements.
One exotic issue the public knows little about is that the U.S. power system is vulnerable to an electromagnetic pulse attack. He compared it to the Sept. 1, 1859 “white light” solar flare that lasted about five minutes, the impact reaching Earth the next day and lasting two days, lighting up the northern hemisphere with green, blue and red auroras, killing and injuring telegraph operators. Telegraph lines caught fire. Teletypes scorched paper, printed gibberish and continued to function for hours after being unplugged.
Gunn said he does not know whether the United States can wield an EMP as a weapon because he had no need to know when he was in the Navy, but the Pentagon believes Russia has such a weapon, and “right now there is no solution.”
An EMP attack “absolutely could … take down the United States,” he said.
In December, the Air Force released a report that received greater attention overseas—the London Daily Mail called it “shocking”—and said the U.S. is largely unprepared for such an attack, that it could eliminate all electricity, kill 90 percent of the people on the East Coast and lead to chaos worldwide. North Korea, Russia and Iran have been developing such weapons, the report said.
Few facilities that need to be protected against an EMP with “hardened” exteriors are so outfitted, Gunn told the Reno audience. Boeing is working on developing an EMP weapon for the United States and is also developing aircraft that can ward off EMPs—each of which is expected to have the price tag of an aircraft carrier—including a new Air Force One. Trump has said several times that he is working on reducing the cost for the new Air Force One, but a transportation trade website has said Trump’s “assertions have repeatedly proven to be hollow and now it is becoming clear that the program’s price tag has actually leaped considerably.”