Last March, the White House announced plans to levy new sanctions against Russia for a list of digital transgressions that included their efforts to meddle with the 2016 presidential election.
This apparent admission from a Trump administration official drew headlines all over the nation, but another facet of that round of sanctions that failed to draw the same level of attention could actually pose a far greater threat to America’s security: the revelation that the Russian military had managed to infiltrate critical portions of America’s commercial power grid.
Power lines are like the nation’s veins and arteries.
“We were able to identify where they were located within those business systems and remove them from those business systems,” one official said of the infiltration, speaking on condition of anonymity.
America does not have a single power grid, but rather has multiple interlinked systems dedicated to supplying the electrical lifeblood to the nation — and if calling it “lifeblood” seems like a bit of poetic license, consider that the U.S. Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack predicted a whopping 90% casualty rate among American citizens in the event of a prolonged nationwide power failure. Money may make the world go ’round, but without electricity, nobody would be alive to notice.
It’s not just civilians that would find their way of life crippled following a blackout. More than a decade ago, a report filed by the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board warned that, “military installations are almost completely dependent on a fragile and vulnerable commercial power grid, placing critical military and homeland defense missions at unacceptable risk of extended outage.”
With no power in people’s homes, they would rely on other forms of fuel until they ran out as well.
(Dave Hale via Flickr)
One would hope that Uncle Sam took that warning to heart and made an effort to insulate America’s defensive infrastructure against such an attack, but the truth is, very little has been done. In fact, one law passed by the State of California in 2015 actually bars military installations from using renewable energy sources to become independent of the state’s commercial power suppliers.
This means a cyber attack that managed to infiltrate and take down large swaths of America’s power grid would not only throw the general public into turmoil, it could shut down America’s military and law enforcement responses before they were even mounted.
Today, fighting wars is still largely a question of beans, bullets, and Band-Aids, but in the very near future (perhaps already) it will be time to add buttons to that list. Cell phones don’t work without power to towers, and without access to telephone lines or the internet, communications over distances any further than that of handheld walkie-talkies would suddenly become impossible.
Without refrigeration or ready access to fuel, cities would rapidly be left without food and people would grow desperate.
(denebola2025 via Flickr)
Coordinating a large scale response to civil unrest (or an invasion force) would be far more problematic in such an environment than it would be with our lights on and communications up. But then, if previous government assessments are correct, an enemy nation wouldn’t even need to invade. They could just cut the power and wait for us to kill one another.
Today, we still tend to think of weapons of mass destruction as bombs and bacteria, but in the large scale conflicts of the 21st century, a great deal can be accomplished with little more than keystrokes. Destabilizing a nation’s economy and unplugging the power can ruin an entire nation. Not even one of Russia’s massive new nuclear ICBMs can do that.
The United States isn’t alone in this vulnerability. In fact, similar methodologies have already been employed in conflict-ridden places like Eastern Ukraine. As cyber attacks become more prevalent, it’s not just likely, it’s all but inevitable that cyber warriors will become the true tip of the spear for the warfare of tomorrow.