Keeping the Lights On

For most of human history, to attack an enemy required placing yourself in danger as well.

Soldiers met soldiers on the battlefield. Archers were vulnerable to return volleys. Artillery to artillery. Air strikes to flak from ground forces, or to direct dog fights.

As the tech of war advanced, sooner or later one side’s new advantage would end up empowering the other side as well, all the way up to strategic missile nuclear threats and the development of missile defense systems in the latter part of the 20th century.

When, for a while, a hegemon does arise, so too do asymmetric responses. 

Arab forces took advantage of prolonged droughts in the seventh century to seize control of north Africa from Imperial Rome. (And then promptly destroyed the vital irrigation systems that Rome had built to sustain agriculture there.) Small bands of 18th century colonials turned the tables on disciplined battalions of British troops, disappearing into the woods, until General Washington assembled enough of a rag-tag army to cross the Delaware and erode away the crown’s investment in suppressing liberties in North America. 

History is rife with other examples. But what happens when hegemony is based not solely on military power or its overt use, but on broader economic, social, and technology factors?

Actually, hegemony pretty much always is so based. 

Rome’s power derived not only from its military legions but also from the roads, bridges, and water distribution systems it built in far-flung territories it conquered, and for the promise that some could attain Roman citizenship. Britain’s mid-18th century power was based on its maritime presence, which in turn facilitated trade. In both cases, this geographically distributed influence was made possible by some degree of representative government that distinguished it from its rivals. 

Hegemony can be lost. Often it’s eroded away by the spread of enabling technology to others. Houthis were given drones by Iran, who copied U.S. and other equipment they captured. Cell phones facilitate guerilla organization. Internet technologies—including those used to fake videos or hack databases—migrate to other countries and to underground groups.

Keep in mind that the Internet along with the Global Positioning Satellite system were originally Defense Department technologies developed for military purposes. Similarly,  the tech for cell phone systems was built on Defense Department work in flexible battlefield packet radio networks. What becomes commercialized spreads—not only the devices themselves, but the underlying tech and related skills.

But tech migration alone doesn’t account for the collapse of hegemony. Social erosion in the form of an increasingly dissolute elite class was a major problem for Imperial Rome and had begun to seriously infect the pre-Revolutionary British aristocracy as well. Behind both was a fatal complacency that assumed the power they enjoyed was not really in danger of competition or of unraveling.

As the mid-18th century British elites came to realize, their maritime-based power was vulnerable due to its lack of real-time communications methods and to the cost of moving large numbers of troops and arms to an increasingly angry North American population. That anger in turn sprang from the refusal of the British Crown and Parliament to extend the rights of citizenship to the colonials while demanding obedience and taxes from them nonetheless.

So the British ended up withdrawing in the face of the American Revolution. Then the Industrial Revolution that got its start in Britain once again refreshed their economic and geopolitical reach for over  a century. That same Industrial Revolution also empowered the resource-rich but struggling United States, fueled as well by an influx of new migrants with trades skills.

Eventually, after more than a century and a massively bloody civil war, the United States emerged from World War I as a new international presence, from World War II as a superpower, and after the collapse of the USSR arguably as a hegemon.

For a while.

The Danger to Our Grid

What tech can create, however, it can also destroy. What it enables it can erode. And today’s digital tech is uniquely qualified to enable asymmetrical attacks on the United States—attacks at a distance that do not endanger the attackers, that can be difficult to trace back to their source, and that can wreak devastation across major regions and the country as a whole in a very brief time.

Widespread devastation is possible when systems that are central to daily functioning can be disrupted or destroyed. So it’s important that we realize the significant danger we face right now with regard to power generation and distribution.

In late 2016 and again in 2017, Russian hackers took down the power grid in major parts of Ukraine during the cold of winter. In 2018, U.S. officials acknowledged that Russian hackers had penetrated multiple key utilities. A few months later the Wall Street Journal reported that the penetration went all the way down to grid control rooms, with access privileges sufficient to shut down power generation across each one.

The vulnerabilities are well-known. Various initiatives were formed to address them, starting with a series of reports from the combined National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. A public/private consortium was formed. And on and on.

Cyber penetration is not the only threat to the power grid, however. An electromagnetic pulse (EMP) from a nuclear detonation high in the atmosphere could fry not only all the chips in our cars, PCs, and phones but also in the Internet routing computers used to control the various power grids we depend upon. 

An official EMP commission tried for several years to spur hardening of key equipment and systems. You can read the last report of the group, decommissioned in 2019, for yourself. 

In an interview that year, report author Peter Vincent Pry warned that Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, and others were interested in the potential for combined cyber, EMP, and direct attacks on the U.S. power grid.

This new warfare uses cyber viruses, hacking, physical attacks, non-nuclear EMP weapons, and a nuclear EMP attack against electric grids and critical infrastructures. It renders modern armies, navies, and air forces obsolete. It paves the way for asymmetric warfare by small nations and terrorists.

How bad would such an attack be? The report estimates that 90 percent of the population would die from starvation, disease, and societal collapse.

Under the Biden Administration, solar power generation is a key priority despite its low generation efficiency and its dependence on rare minerals whose control, in many cases, has fallen into the hands of the Chinese. The administration is eagerly rebuilding long-neglected power production and distribution in Puerto Rico while throttling U.S. oil and gas extraction. 

What it is not doing is addressing the vulnerabilities of the mainland American grid or promoting nuclear generation using modern, much safer technologies.

If the grid is taken off line for weeks or months, people will die. Many people.

Hospitals will run out of emergency petrochemical-based backup systems. Food supplies will be interrupted. Sanitation and water supplies will be in danger as well—which will lead rather quickly to major disease spread. The economy will crash in the absence of both electricity and of the communications systems that depend on it. 

And if that happens as a result of one or more EMP blasts too high up to melt Los Angeles and Silicon Valley but close enough to destroy the semiconductor chips in crop harvesting equipment, cell phones, and Internet communications, along with all transportation throughout California, the number of dead Americans will be staggering.

Which is why recent evidence that Russia and China are each rapidly maturing advanced hypersonic missile capabilities has badly shaken key Defense Department leaders. While they were busy adjusting troop physical fitness tests for gender equity, our rivals have been focusing their attention on key attack capabilities that have the potential for asymmetric devastation of our country.

There is no simple, quick fix we could apply even if we could somehow overcome Beltway turf battles (or corruption in the families of key officials). This is a really serious infrastructure vulnerability that will take time, investment, and determination to remedy.

But since even really bad weather or a solar Carrington Event could bring the grid down for a while, you might want to build some household and community resilience. Prepare for two to four weeks without power, if you’re able.

And consider a discussion with your members of Congress about national priorities.

About Robin Burk

Robin Burk started her career wearing bell bottom jeans in the basement of the Pentagon, where she had the challenging privilege of interacting with computing legend Grace Hopper, and in Silicon Valley, where she wrote one of the first commercially deployed Internet protocol software stacks. The remainder of her first career half was spent in roles through senior executive in small and mid-sized tech companies serving defense and national security customers in the US and abroad. After the attacks of 9/11 Robin taught in two departments at the U.S. Military Academy (West Point). Returning to the Beltway area, she grew a fledgling research grant program in the new discipline of complex network systems at the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, center of U.S. counterWMD expertise, then led a team that addressed national security and commercial applications at a major R&D organization. Today her passion is helping organizations and individuals make the best responses to disruptive tech-driven change. Along the way she picked up a PhD in artificial intelligence and some DOD civilian medals. She is currently being trained by a young English Cocker Spaniel whose canine appreciation for social compacts rivals that of Confucius and his followers.

Photo: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

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