As a part if my quest to teach people the things they need to know and do to be prepared, a friend and I conduct Preparedness classes for local church groups. The most often asked question in the early stages of these classes is “Well, what are we preparing for? What is the biggest and most credible threat?”
Where do you start with that question? My first response is usually “The Executive Branch!” That answer may or may not be well founded, and that is a debate for a Political Science class and is really neither here nor there in the current context.
So, what then? So many choices, so little time!
First, let’s assume that we are not talking about ordinary run of the mill natural disasters. Being prepared for these is important, but if you are operating on a grander scale they pretty much take care of themselves. Even a week’s worth of power outage won’t tax you if you have prepared for something truly catastrophic and long term.
The biggest threat I see to a long term disruption, or even collapse, of social order is Power Grid Vulnerability. This in itself covers a wide range of possibilities ranging from rogue squirrels (http://cybersquirrel1.com/) , to solar storms. There is a lot of ground in between those threats, and most of them are a lot less entertaining than the great Squirrel Menace.
A solar Storm of a magnitude capable of bringing down the grid is almost an inevitability. And there are most certainly hostile forces in the world that are technologically capable of employing a grid killing EMP weapon against the U.S. But, there are far easier ways to do the exact same thing.
In April of 2013, there was a little publicized attack against a PG&E power substation near San Jose, California. In this attack more than 100 rounds of semi-automatic rifle fire damaged 17 large transformers and inflicted more than 15 million dollars worth of damage that took months to repair. As a part of the attack, several fiber optic cables that were crucial to communication and coordination at the substation were cut, hindering identification of the problem as well as efforts to mitigate the potential crisis.
Fortunately, the power company was able to act quickly to reroute supply, and due to the season, loads on the system were not at a peak. Still, this incident came very close to causing a regional blackout that would have left Silicone valley in the dark for… who knows? Officials have stated that if a small number of stations were to be hit by coordinated attacks it would be relatively simple for a small number of attackers armed only with rifles to drop the grid everywhere west of the Rockies. Initially, the FBI classified this incident as “Vandalism”, they have since (very quietly!) upgraded it to an act of terrorism.
In December of last year, in an equally underpublicized event, hackers were able to bring down the grid for a large area of the Ukraine. This was a well coordinated, multi-pronged cyber attack. First, hackers were able to infiltrate the control systems, and remotely turn off key circuit breakers, which turned the lights out for more than 80,000 customers. This was followed almost immediately by the insertion of malware which essentially wiped out the software that controls restarting of the system, making it impossible to remotely turn the affected breakers back on.
At the same time, telecommunications to the power company were disrupted when the hackers were able to insert a denial of service order into the phone system. This denial of service made it very difficult for customers to report outages, hindering efforts to identify affected areas, and thus efforts to get things back on line. The Ukrainians acted quickly, isolated their grid from control systems, and got things up and running manually. Still, it was very cold and very dark in a very large number of homes for up to 8 hours. Our grid is every bit as vulnerable to this type of attack.
Both of these incidents point out a very glaring weakness in the fabric of our society. Both were relatively small and isolated in the grand scheme of things. Scary statistic time! The U.S. power grid is attacked, physically or virtually, on average once every 4 days!
My biggest concern is that at some point a concerted, multi pronged and coordinated attack on the entire grid will be mounted. If physical attacks by small groups on multiple key substations were carried out simultaneously, in conjunction with cyber attacks on the control and communication systems, the results could be nothing short of catastrophic.
Such an operation would not require a huge number of personnel, and if it were set to be triggered by a natural disaster (Say a hurricane or earthquake), the results could be magnified to an inestimable degree. Pretty much the biggest nightmare scenario imaginable in an asymmetrical warfare situation!
So, if you want to ponder the reasons for preparedness, and the credible threats that are out there, grid vulnerability should top your list. If you are ready for a long term grid down event, anything else is a case of the hiccoughs.
– Pat Bellew