New Approach Developed for Building Resilience against Electromagnetic Pulse Attacks

2/2/2022 12:21:13 PM Jenny Applequist

In the 2012 movie Red Dawn, North Korea initiates a war on the U.S. with an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack that knocks out American power systems over a wide area. Hollywood often plays fast and loose with technological reality, but for once, the scenario was plausible: EMPs could indeed be used to disable a nation’s critical infrastructure. For that reason, a DHS-funded project is developing solutions for assessing systems’ resilience against EMPs. Just a few months into the project, a preliminary version of the team’s approach is already undergoing initial validation tests.

Glen R. Salo, President of Synclesis, Inc. and PI of the effort, explains why an EMP, caused by detonation of a nuclear bomb high in Earth’s atmosphere, could be devastating. “The particles from the nuclear explosion interact with the atmosphere, and that creates an electromagnetic wave... The challenge is that... you’re high above the Earth; and therefore that wave can impinge upon electronic systems over a very large area. And that can include the entire continental United States from one explosion!”

Such a wave induces currents that flow into systems and along power lines and other conductors that, in some cases, may span multiple states and hundreds of miles, creating the potential to induce very large currents.

Salo’s team at Synclesis is partnering on the work with two UIUC professors. One of them, José E. Schutt-Ainé, explains that they want to predict how damaging the arrival of that current will be for a system. “Our goal is to be able to assess whether there is going to be ‘destructive’ or ‘disruptive’ consequences,” he says. “In the case of a ‘destructive’ consequence, the EMP signal is so strong that it destroys the electronics and the circuitry. But it could also cause ‘disruption’: a situation where it doesn’t destroy the circuit, but it’s able to [cause]... what you’d call ‘soft errors’: it could, for example, somehow interfere with the communications circuitry and then send the wrong information.”

They are trying to predict those outcomes using modeling and simulation, which are complicated by the enormous complexity of the systems being assessed. The work initially concentrated on power systems, but its focus later expanded to include communication systems, with particular attention on 5G towers. The team is close to completing the prototype framework, called Multiscale Electromagnetic Interference Analysis and Design (MEAD), that can assess systems’ vulnerabilities and identify changes that would make them more resilient.

The researchers are eager to start validating the MEAD models on real systems and are seeking help from communications service providers. “We are looking for feedback in terms of our assumptions for the communication systems,” says Salo. “We’re looking for industry representatives to review our approach. We’re also looking for any kind of sharing of data that can be done. We would love to have more test data to actually validate what we’re doing.”

Schutt-Ainé says that once the approach has been validated and refined, it will be an important step towards minimizing the threat posed by EMPs. “This is for national security,” he stresses. “Being able to make good assessments as to how exposed the infrastructure is, is very important, because also this could provide... good mitigation techniques: What can we do to protect these towers?”

The project, called “EMP Risk Assessment and Mitigation Prioritization,” is funded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security as part of the Critical Infrastructure Resilience Institute (CIRI) in

UIUC’s Information Trust Institute. Its leadership team includes Salo; Schutt-Ainé, who is a professor of Electrical & Computer Engineering (ECE); and Andreas Cangellaris, who is the M. E. Van Valkenburg Professor in ECE as well as UIUC’s Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Provost. Salo, Schutt-Ainé, and Cangellaris are the co-founders and co-owners of Synclesis