New York City’s July 13 blackout that put over 70,000 people in the dark, on the 40th
anniversary of the 1977 city-wide blackout effecting 9 million (the latter resulting in riots and looting, 550 police injured, 4,500 arrests, and 25 uncontrolled fires) is yet another forewarning we live in an electronic civilization.
While the July 13 blackout allegedly resulted from no foul play, a natural or manmade EMP or cyber-attack could potentially blackout much or all of North America for weeks, months, or permanently.
Senator Angus King (I-Maine) and Senator Jim Risch (R-Idaho) deserve high praise for Senate passage of their Securing Energy Infrastructure Act (SEIA) — that now awaits passage through the House. SEIA — as important to national security as tactical nuclear weapons — could perhaps pass during Senate-House conferencing on the National Defense Authorization Act.
SEIA would explore protecting electric power grids from cyber-attacks by isolating and defending industrial control systems through old-fashioned analog and non-digital controls without the internet.
Cyber warfare poses potentially an existential threat to our electronic civilization because high-tech controls, managed or accessible through the internet, run virtually everything — electric power, communications, water and gas pipelines, even traffic lights.
Said Senator King upon Senate passage of SEIA, “This bill takes vital steps to improve our defenses, so the energy grid that powers our lives is not open to devastating attacks from across the globe.”
The Securing Energy Infrastructure Act was inspired, according to its sponsors, in part by Ukraine’s experience in 2015 when a sophisticated Russian cyber-attack on the Ukrainian electric grid blacked-out more than 225,000 people. The attack could have been worse if not for the fact that Ukraine relies on manual technology to operate its grid.
Subsequent Russian cyber-attacks on Ukraine’s electric power grid in 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019 have been of diminishing effectiveness. None inflicted more than temporary, localized blackouts, from which Ukraine has recovered quickly.
SEIA seeks to build on lessons learned from the Ukrainian experience by studying ways to strategically use manual, mechanical, and other such “retro technology” to isolate the U.S. electric grid’s most important control systems from the internet, thereby defeating cyber-attacks.
The consequences of a protracted nationwide electric blackout were recently foreshadowed in Venezuela. After being without electricity for a few days — due not to cyber-attack, but because of mismanagement and under-investment in the grid by the socialist regime of President Nicolas Maduro — Venezuelans without water were drinking from city sewers.
Venezuela’s problem started from failure of a single high-voltage powerline, triggering cascading failures, like falling technological dominoes, causing nationwide blackout.
All modern high-tech electric grids share Venezuela’s potential vulnerability to cascading catastrophic failures — triggered by cyber-attacks, EMP, or accidents. The U.S. is not invulnerable.
For example, the 1977 New York City blackout started with a lightning strike that tripped two circuit breakers.
The Great Northeast Blackout of 2003 started when a powerline contacted a tree branch — triggering cascading failures that plunged 50 million Americans into darkness.
The USSR and China during the Cold War, before cyber-threats existed, hardened their electric grids, other critical infrastructures, and military forces — in part by relying on “retro technologies” — to survive nuclear EMP attack. That is why Ukraine, previously part of the USSR, is resilient against Russian cyber-attacks today.
The USSR used “retro-technology” to EMP harden some of its most sophisticated military systems.
For example, in 1976, when Soviet pilot Viktor Belenko defected with his MiG-25, then the USSR’s most advanced fighter aircraft, U.S. analysts were surprised to discover it was wired with vacuum tube technology. The Soviets could have used modern electronics in the MiG-25 — but deliberately used old-fashioned electronics because they are one million times less vulnerable to EMP.
It is no accident, and not due to backwardness, that Russia today remains the world’s largest manufacturer of vacuum tube electronics.
SEIA’s passage could help implement President Trump’s March 26, 2019, Executive Order to protect the nation’s critical infrastructures from EMP. Since Russia, China, and other adversaries plan to use cyber-attacks in combination with sabotage and EMP, an “all hazards” strategy to protection is best. (See EMP Commission report “Nuclear EMP Attack Scenarios and Combined-Arms Cyber Warfare”.)
One big potential weakness: SEIA trusts the Department of Energy (DOE), Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) to objectively evaluate “retro technology” for protection.
But DOE, DHS, and NERC are too cozy with the electric power industry. All underestimate threats from cyber, sabotage, and EMP. All share industry’s goal of building an even higher-tech “smart grid” that supposedly will be more efficient and more profitable — but could also be more vulnerable.
Is a compromise between the more profitable “smart grid” and the more survivable “retro grid” possible?
An EMP hardened trailer costs only about $150K. How about outfitting EMP hardened trailers with “retro technology” as Emergency Control Centers if needed during a cyber or EMP attack, while proceeding with the “smart grid”?
Perhaps America can have it both ways — modernity and greater efficiencies of the “smart grid” combined with more survivable “retro technology” when needed.
Dr. Peter Vincent Pry is executive director of the Task Force on National and Homeland Security. He served on the Congressional EMP Commission as chief of staff, the Congressional Strategic Posture Commission, the House Armed Services Committee, and the CIA. He is author of "Blackout Wars." For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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