The US Must Boost Homeland Resilience In The 21st Century

ATLANTIC HIGHLANDS, NJ – MARCH 30: A USA flag flutters in the wind above a 9/11 memorial at Mt. … [+] Mitchill on March 30, 2017, in Atlantic Highlands, NJ. (Photo by Gary Hershorn/Getty Images)

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On February 15th, 2024, the White House confirmed that Russia is attempting to deploy a nuclear spaceborne anti-satellite weapon. While the White House was quick to qualify that there is no immediate nuclear threat to the homeland, little doubt remains that Russia’s pursuit of this weapon, banned under international treaties, is a dire threat. The deployment of spaceborne weapons capable of disrupting the nuclear triad by attacking America’s communications or even launching warheads would represent a watershed event in the developing conflict between the US and its allies, and Russia, China, and their fellow travelers, such as Iran and North Korea. Moscow’s move risks bringing an arms race into space. This demands every technological, military, diplomatic, and legal response America can muster to maintain strategic deterrence.

The US must act quickly to ensure our national security. First and foremost, the US needs to boost our infrastructure’s resilience and protect it from Electromagnetic Pulses (EMPs), a brief burst of electromagnetic energy that can be weaponized to attack communications systems, computers, hospital equipment, advanced manufacturing, and transmission lines. This isn’t a theoretical threat. The drama of the Chinese intelligence balloon that abruptly appeared over America a year ago demonstrated that spaceborne EMPs could threaten America’s outdated electrical grid and result in significant deaths and damage if deployed. Steps to harden America’s grid against EMPs have long been underway but are progressing too slowly.

One pathway to resilience is assuring access to a form of communication that does not require a satellite network — AM radio. AM radio is the backbone of the National Public Warning System — the primary way the government broadcasts news to the public in the event of an emergency. The NPWS, anchored by AM radio signals, is the most effective tool the government will have to communicate with the populace should an EMP attack occur. This is mainly due to AM radio signals’ ability to travel hundreds of miles over terrain that other communications platforms cannot, and its proven durability and resiliency under conditions that other forms of communication cannot be relied upon.

For this reason, the Department of Homeland Security, FEMA, and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency, FEMA have spent a significant amount of time and money on conducting high-altitude electromagnetic pulse (HEMP) testing on the NPWS equipment over the last five years to ensure its operational resiliency. The public safety leaders of these agencies know that, even if an EMP attack takes down America’s cell towers and Internet, the NPWS will remain strong and effective because AM radio is such a central piece of the NPWS infrastructure.

Although AM radios are the cornerstone to the government’s EMP defensive efforts — and although they have helped keep America safe for over 100 years and have supported emergency service operations for decades, especially in rural areas — some carmakers are removing, or contemplating removing, them from their dashes.

2013 Kia Picanto. Artist Unknown. (Photo by National Motor Museum/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

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If AM radio is removed from cars, customers would have to rely on digital or streaming services. For millions of Americans without reliable access to cell or internet, relying on streaming services for news and information is problematic on the best of days. In a disaster situation, when cell towers become overloaded, streaming services may not be available period. This is not speculative – FEMA has warned that “millions of Americans could lose access to critical, life-saving information” should automakers continue removing AM radios from vehicles.

Moreover, AM radios cannot collect user data, Streaming services do, and they can leave user data vulnerable to breaches by criminals, data brokers, and possibly outside powers like Russia and China.

Even without breaches, data could be provided directly to America’s adversaries. China’s Military Civil Fusion laws require private companies to provide customer data upon request. Some companies, like Volvo, are owned by Chinese entities and would be subject to this law. Others, with manufacturing dependent on China, may be coerced into complying. AM radios, already largely re-shored and produced in the US, are primarily provided by small and medium-sized companies that are not vulnerable to this pressure source.

Lawmakers have drafted The AM Radio for Every Vehicle Act to preserve access to AM radios, a rare piece of bipartisan, common-sense legislation. This bill, mandating AM radio access in all motor vehicles, was supported by the seven most recent former heads of FEMA in a letter written to Congress. The bipartisan effort to protect AM in cars has thus far proven effective, with Ford announcing that they will include AM in their 2024 vehicles and update 2023 vehicles to include them (but unfortunately, they have not yet promised to protect them beyond 2024). Senators Ted Cruz and Ed Markey have since sent letters to BMW, TeslaTSLA
, Mazda, Volkswagen, Polestar, Volvo, and Rivian to convince them to stop removing AM radios from their vehicles.

The AM radio bill has cleared the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee and is now pending before Chair Cathy McMorris Rogers’ (R-WA) House Energy and Commerce Committee. Opponents of the bill, such as the Alliance for Automotive Innovation trade association, have dismissed the need for AM, citing the ability to receive critical public warnings via cell or streaming platforms. However, these arguments fail to consider scenarios where the cellular and wireless infrastructure is rendered useless, as occurs regularly during natural disasters, and would be an absolute under an attack by our adversaries.

But the US cannot just afford to play defense against China. It must also play offense by shoring up its domestic capabilities.

One vital sector where the US has become unacceptably dependent on China is the supply of Rare Earth Elements (REEs), essential materials for technological developments in green energy and computing. China has already started to use this imbalance to its advantage by cutting off exports of REE refining technology to America. The US has long worked to counter this by reinforcing its supply chains, increasing domestic production, and supporting foreign production of REEs in friendly locales like Central Asia. An industry where America once abdicated leadership to China is now resurging thanks to security concerns.

To adequately protect the homeland, the US must also increasingly divest China from its supply chains.

Just-in-time” (JIT) production, the dominant industrial strategy since the 1980s that stresses only moving widgets when needed and reducing stockpiles, appears to be breathing its last. Stresses created by Sino-American geopolitical competition as China came to dominate supply chains amid concerns over shortages that surged during COVID-19 have prompted its replacement with “derisking,” “friend-shoring,” and “reshoring.” This securitization will transform the economic relationships among firms of all sizes globally. It represents a more active US industrial policy to promote specific technologies and partners, a welcome change in the face of a predatory near-peer competitor with a penchant for industrial espionage.

A robust and proactive resilience policy championing American manufacturing is not anathema to the free market or national security. The US needs to do more with its targeted R&D and investment via the Development Finance Corporation and Export-Import Bank to counteract growing Russian and Chinese threats from outer space to the marketplace.

All of the above would represent a step in the right direction to bolstering America’s national security infrastructure, protecting its domestic industrial base, and securing the homeland. By adopting these simple measures, the United States can save lives during a natural or man-made disaster like an EMP attack. Getting these initiatives across the finish line would be a small victory, but peaceful competition with peer adversaries is defined by such triumphs.

Quin Buckley contributed to the production of this article.

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