In my story (modern fiction/ apocalyptic survival fiction) an enemy of the US sets up a EMP pulsing satellite over the continental US, and before we can respond all electronic systems are shut down. Would the government be able to hold order at all? if so, for how long?

The best answer would start with a yes or no answer, then give an estimated length of time for ABC and D counties, or something similar to that.

Edit: Here Is the question that is close to my own, posted 2 years ago. My question varies as it specifies one region of the world under EMP. It also asks for answers specific to county/ city size. I focus less on the human race's success, and on the success, if any, that the US gov. would have in this scenario. Also, some electricity will remain, for example our brains would still function where in the linked question it is assumed all electricity would not work. I specify that electronics break, not biological electricity.


closed as off-topic by JBH, elemtilas, Cyn, Confounded by beige fish., Alex2006 Jun 5 at 11:10

This question appears to be off-topic. The users who voted to close gave this specific reason:

If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ In the 1860s a significant number of American cities (and towns and villages) actively tried to fall out of the control of the U.S. government. They had absolutely no electronics in the 1860s. It took the U.S. government several years, but in the end the attempt failed and the U.S. government retained control over all the rebel cities. What makes you believe that the current U.S. government will be less motivated? $\endgroup$ – AlexP Jun 4 at 16:38
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ The title asks one question, the body asks another. Please decide and edit the question to reflect the decision. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Jun 4 at 16:41
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Why do you think it's the government that "holds order"? The immediate problems wouldn't be anything related to government, they'd be practical & economic. For instance, a practical problem would be that all the traffic signals stop working, though of course that's not going to matter, since the only cars running will be '70s and earlier models. And of course most gas pumps don't work, which doesn't matter 'cause the banking system is down, as well as the electric power grid... Government is the LEAST of your problems :-) $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Jun 4 at 16:52
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Dear OP, there are many myths about EMPs and their consequences and the energy required to affect electronics, eg in cars even over a city sized area. I recommend that you read: the second part, lower part of the page is written by an electronics engineer - I'm not answering the question, but the blog-post is very informative, might give you a few ideas for the specifics and the expectations people might have had, pre-superweapon. $\endgroup$ – Confounded by beige fish. Jun 4 at 17:30
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ How are the ASAT (Anti-satellite) missiles (located not near the continental US) are being handwaved away? I would image that the attacking satellite wont't live long if you don't. The attacking country may not exist much longer after that. $\endgroup$ – Michael Kutz Jun 4 at 23:05

The US government could hold order; though restore order would be a better term. Also, political power is more local than you suppose.

An EMP would be picked up by power lines and likely fry substations and plugged in electrical devices. It might even take out a few power plants, depending on their design.

It would also take out most modern cars (because of the electronics in them) in its range though I think that you would need to have pretty wide coverage to take out transportation in more than a localized region.

Look at the New York City blackout of 1977. That was just one city. That night there was massive looting. Given the current climate of "looting as freedom of speech," you can expect that in most major cities. The suburbs and rural areas would have a better time of it.

Also, on the whole, the federal government does not really govern the citizens. The states and the cities do. The state steps in if the city cannot maintain control. The Feds step in if the states cannot maintain control or if a state is in conflict with another state.

What will likely happen is that the inner city parts of large cities would riot and destroy all of their infrastructure. Then, when the inner city becomes unlivable, the looters will then spread out to the rest of the city (destroying that) and, if nothing is done, they will spread into the suburbs as packs of bandits.

So, it all hinges on transportation. If enough vehicles are operational (old enough or protected) that they can get in to stop or contain the riots, everything will be fine except for in the big cities. This all depends on the amount of resources the cities and states have and how willing they are to use them. So, some cities will explode out ward and some will implode.

For most of the country, everything will be normal except for the lack of electricity and the massive starvation and die off that will result from that (no electricity means no refrigeration).

  • 4
    $\begingroup$ Your NYC example doesn't really hold for the rest of the country, as it had serious gun control laws. In the whole country, you might get some looting &c in inner cities, but as the looters spread out into more rural areas, they'd wind up dead. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Jun 4 at 16:54
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ @jamesqf, Yes, that's why i said that it would be different for different cities. The trouble is that even in areas with access to firearms, not everyone has the forsite to prepare for trouble instead of react to it. Also, the surviving looters will form roving bands. 20-40 people with guns beats an isolated farm with guns. $\endgroup$ – ShadoCat Jun 4 at 17:00
  • $\begingroup$ You know you mentioning older cars there actually makes me wonder how many older model aircraft are still laying around in a flight worthy condition. By that I am thinking along the lines of B707, B727, B737-100 models old enough that their cockpits are all plain old fashioned gyros and gauges with mechanically actuated flight controls etc. In other words none of this modern glass cockpit or fly by wire stuff that just got turned into an overpriced paperweight. $\endgroup$ – MttJocy Jun 4 at 17:54
  • $\begingroup$ Look at the North East Blackout of 2003 as well, a more recent example of a major failure in the power system. $\endgroup$ – Alex Jun 4 at 18:39
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ "no electricity means no refrigeration": this would limit food supplies in many ways that the US is not accustomed too, but so much domestic agriculture is based on grains and meat which do not rely on refrigeration to be able to offer a year around supply of food. There would be several shortages for logistical reasons at first as people figure out how to get food where it is needed, but not likely to the point of a significant die off. $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki Jun 5 at 6:10

The most immediate needs of the United States at this point will largely be covered and actually have been for some time. During the cold war, the United States anticipated that the opening strike from the U.S.S.R. wouldn't be a ground target, but a high altitude target. The detonation of one well placed Nuclear War Head miles above the states would cause an EMP powerful enough to destroy the continental U.S. Considering your bad guy has one such device, he might not get all of the United States... Portions of Alaska and all of Hawaii would be functional in such an attack, and both of these locations have military Command and Control Infrastructure, with Pearl Harbor being the HQ of the Pacific Fleet (a very large fleet) and Alaska being one peaky out of Sarah Palin's Curtains from Russia, the military can functionally have communications from there. Additionally the President has access not only to SAM 26000/27000 (One of two planes traditionally called "Air Force One") but also Operation LOOKING GLASS (Specifically Night Watch) which is a mobile airborn command post with all the capabilities of a Straticic Air Command (SAC) Headquarters. The Night Watch planes are designed to act as "Air Force One" in the event of a Nuclear Attack on the United States. All planes involved in these programs are EMP shielded and Night Watch specifically take it a step forward by relying on non-electronic instruments for further safety from EMPs. The LOOKING GLASS planes are not as well associated with the President because the President technically has never been onboard one... The idea is that the President should only get on one of these planes if the threat is real, as giving him a tour may accidentally signal to adversaries he's really going to attack. In fact, a made for TV Movie about the build of to Nuclear War between the United States and Russia was title "Count Down to Looking Glass" as the film concluded with the President stepping on the titular plane, signalling exchange resulting in a nuclear detonation was only the beginning of the problems... as the movie was done as a collection film clips for most of it, the reporters have a notable sense of dread reporting this.)

In addition, you would not be reading my answer if the United States didn't have some secure commucations that could survive such an attack: The Internet was developed as a series of projects to keep some computers fuctional if any one location was destoryed. There are also several means of low frequecy communications that are easy to build back quickly and even those that aren't can be harden. As the initial EMP from a Soviet attack was assumed, the U.S. spent a good deal of money investing in hardened communication and computer equipment.

At home, you can even, with some notice, attempt to save your laptops and phones with narry a dollar spent. Merely pop open your microwave oven, put everything you can inside, and close the door and for the love of God, do not turn the oven on! The Microwave uses... well, microwave radiation, a form of electro magnetic radiation, to cook food faster by heating the water. To keep from the nasty part not shown about turning on an unshielded microwave around people in Batman Begins, the Magnatron... the part of the Microwave that makes the microwaves happen... is encased in a Faraday cage (that's why you have a metal screen in the glass of your oven) which keeps all that Electro-magnetic goodness cooking you leftovers and not you. The cool thing about Faraday Cages is that they insulate both sides... if there was an EMP on the outside of the oven, anything on the inside would be untouched... including electronics the EMP would otherwise fry. If you can find a microwave, you can save your phones, tablets, laptops, and game devices for your little brat so you can shut him up by letting him play with his Japanese monster collection.

The most likely response from the military that the average joe would see is not the US Military, but the National Guard, which is a state military which is much more capable of assisting an overwhelmed law enforcement than the US military in the initial days. Again, since this is a 40 year old known threat, they probably have disaster managment plans lying around somewhere with what to do and how to best fix the situation. There's little cost to maintain plans incurred by the military so the U.S. has disaster plans and war plans for everything (The Pacific Theater of World War II played out almost identically to plans drawn up in the 1920s and shelved until such a time as needed. There are even plans for, and I kid you not, a military response to an invasion of the nation by the Girl Scouts of America... Cause you never know when it might come in handy).


Maybe for a few days but broadly speaking no. The biggest issue is that killing the electricity will knock out most of the transportation network, which means long distance food deliveries become a thing of the past, over night. As the saying goes "no government is more than nine meals from anarchy"; if you can't keep your people feed for three days running then they will revolt in favour of someone who says that they can. Lack of lightspeed communications and mechanised transport also means that government agencies can't project force effectively over any large distance. In agricultural areas with low to moderate population density town and county officials will be able to keep their local area organised indefinitely using local food sources. In areas of high population density though people are going to start to starve after a few days and then the riots and deaths will start. Anyone who doesn't get out of the cities fast is going to die, either through outright starvation or being killed for the meat on their bones.

County size isn't really going to be a deciding factor, what will make the difference between survival and destruction is the relationship between population density and local food reserves and growth potential. Proximity to large populations that will move out of urban areas also needs to be taken into account, many of these will be on foot but bicycles and old school analog cars can't be ruled out when estimating their impact.

Read Dies the Fire by S.M Stirling, he kills a bit more than the electricity but the effect will be broadly the same except in your case there will be gun violence mixed in.

  • $\begingroup$ added to my book list, thanks $\endgroup$ – Alex Jun 4 at 17:13
  • $\begingroup$ @Alex Be warned it is only one part of a large and very good series, you'll be reading for a while when you get into it. Have made an edit to address the county size issue. $\endgroup$ – Ash Jun 4 at 17:16

24 hours. Or less.

People will believe that the supermarkets and groceries will not be restocked. That causes looting and anarchy which makes sure that supermarkets and groceries will not be restocked, even if someone was to find food supplies and trucks that can be repaired.

It would look slightly different if there was a few days preparation. But at zero notice? No chance.

  • $\begingroup$ I think it depends on when the emp is fired. If its around 3 pm, and everyone is stranded at work/ school, with broken elevators, phones, cars, riots would break out right away. If it happened at 7pm, when most people are at home, they might write it off as a minor blackout and not act on whats going on until the next day, potentially the next night. $\endgroup$ – Alex Jun 4 at 16:55
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @Alex, that gives a dark night when the police doesn't answer the phone. $\endgroup$ – o.m. Jun 4 at 17:12
  • $\begingroup$ didnt even think of that ... nice. $\endgroup$ – Alex Jun 4 at 17:16

While excessive communication delays can make it administratively impossible to hold on to territory the reality is that even at the size of the US sending messages and/or reinforcements if needed by rail would likely be sufficient. And of course today urgent messages can be carried even faster by jet aircraft that can easily carry messages across the continent in mere hours when the organisation needing to send said urgent communicates is in possession of an enormous fleet of aircraft you know like the US government happens to be.

The US has survived through far worse communication delays than that and was able to maintain it's territorial control. Even your typical medieval European nation faced communication delays that would easily be measured in days and marching troops in to quell a rebellion if needed took even longer yet they also were able to maintain control for centuries.

As for your question about the priorities when it comes to establishing alternate communication infrastructure I would expect at least the federal government to take a more strategic approach their priority is likely to be re-establishing communication with the state capitals starting with those closest to DC. I would expect them to have something in place with the east coast state capitals within a day or two at most the west coast would be likely to take more like 1-2 weeks due to the distance.

I would expect a similarly hierarchical restoration to continue from there though it may make sense to decentralise some aspects for example for state governments to focus on getting the municipal governments of their major cities online and have them manage smaller surrounding county authorities. With slower communication this sort of decentralisation of power helps to minimise issues with communication delays. State governments should be able to restore communication with at least their major cities very quickly even the largest states don't really have places more than a day or so from the capital.

As for transportation to do this if the EMP is an ongoing factor this could make things slower though I could see the government leasing all the working steam locomotives from private heritage railways etc that it can get it's hands on and many of them can easily do highway speeds or above. Of course if the EMP was a one off event or if the EMP satellite could be disabled by an ASAT launched from any of the US launch sites outside the continental US to take it out then the US could of course lease aircraft from aircraft leasing companies that had their hangers outside of the US and use those for communication also.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ We probably could manage to strip electronics out of trains and--cautiously--manage to get them back up and running, but there's going to be a long, long while before we get a fleet of jets going that we deem safe without electronics. $\endgroup$ – Nex Terren Jun 4 at 16:42
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ Jet planes, and even modern trains, are deeply dependent on electronics for their function. I doubt either one would work, and by the time anyone could get a steam locomotive on a modern track and figure a way to not collide with stopped trains (without electronics), the trouble would be over, one way or the other. $\endgroup$ – Zeiss Ikon Jun 4 at 16:48
  • $\begingroup$ I am looking for a more specific answer based on county size (I used Nelson's ABCD ranking in the question). Like would they start at A? or D? whats more important to the Gov, east coast or west coast? does DC move to Hawaii (out of the bounds of the satellite) or does that put them to close to potential threats? Hopefully these questions will help. $\endgroup$ – Alex Jun 4 at 16:49
  • $\begingroup$ @ZeissIkon A working standard gauge steam locomotive could likely be leased from a heritage railway relatively quickly for the right price of course there are quite a few in working order around the US. $\endgroup$ – MttJocy Jun 4 at 16:53
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @MttJocy And how would one quickly contact a heritage railway? Without email, telephones, or radio? No GPS to let a rider (on a horse, no less) find the railway office. No way to call up the actual owner of the loco to ask if it's okay, or to verify a Federal requisition. It'd be a major cluster-copulation, any way you look at it. $\endgroup$ – Zeiss Ikon Jun 4 at 16:57

I'll break down my answer into county sizes. This answer is my best swing at what would happen if the government manages to hold on at least a bit. Maybe they use messenger pigeons. They have only been out of use for less then 100 years. I assume that the allies of the US would work to deter the attacker, so I didn't include a US response to the threat.

County A- Urban City

The first night of the power outage will likely resemble a mixture of the first Siege of Sarajevo, a 1400 day siege in the '90s, and the riots that we see on TV in cities today.

At first, if any order is to be held quickly it will likely be done with fear. Police and Local Militias (Coast Guard) even potentially Military support from cities near Military bases, will try their best to contain potential threats by putting major cities under siege. In the actual streets anarchy will likely rule until the government is able to squeeze in on the rioters and people left in the city. A few people might survive by hunkering down, boarding up windows and doors, with food and weapons for protection, but if it resembles the Siege of Sarajevo and it is years before the military support can step in, everyone will be forced into the streets.

One alteration from this would be time of year. Even in Chicago, IL, where people are shot almost everyday, will experience 0 murders in the dead of winter. If the elements force people indoors, control might be attainable for cities that experience heavy snowfall and sub freezing temperatures. Even if the outages start in the summer, the Gov. would just need to hold out until the Winter to move in on cities like Milwaukee, Chicago, Denver, New York etc.

I conclude this section by realizing war crimes will most likely be committed,for example chemical warfare would allow the military to move in and take action faster.

County B- Large suburbs

Large Suburbs are likely where the Gov. presence would retreat to/ congregate. Check points and barriers would be set up, and local eligible people would be recruited to work on security, or assigned jobs by the Gov to aid the effort of control. The people who have not fled would likely take the positions and leadership, especially if they were to offer food and protection.

County C- Small suburbs/ Large Rural

Small suburbs would fall in between the small pop rural and the suburbs. Most likely these size cities would be extorted for the growing and animal husbandry potential, being closer to the military power that needs the food then the rural peoples. Cities with larger police forces and previously active local governments might find they can self sustain, trading with the army food for weapons/ gasoline/ cigarettes.

County D- Small Pop Rural

The lack of people would allow for a higher potential of survival, aided by the people who live in low pop rural areas are often those who provide food for the rest of society. Small units would form of farmers and locals, who would start their own societies for better protection and resource management.

They might be ignored by the tanks and jeeps that the military roles out to the cities at first, but will be aware that soon attention will turn to face them for their resources of food. They might be able to operate independently because they will have the most valuable trade items in the country, and likely have enough fire power to keep away looter and bandit gangs. It is also common culture in rural low pop towns to have a sense of being self reliant as access to resources people have in the cities or even in suburbs would not normally be available to them. For instance, they are more likely to know how to fix up an old tractor, and have spare gasoline barrels in a barn. Even luxury item farms, like tobacco farms, would still be able to trade their product to get ahead in the world. I could see slavery returning, although it would be enslavement of looters from the city/ suburbs not race based.


Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.