Lawmakers Predict Widespread Attacks On Power Grids
Octber 24, 2011
By David A. Fulghum
WASHINGTON — Predictions from Capitol Hill of an eventual massive electronic attack on the U.S., its allies and even its foes are dire. They now include claims that Iran’s military and Revolutionary Guard forces are practicing for detonation of a nuclear weapon just at the edge of the atmosphere.
“They have practiced launching a mobile ballistic missile from a vessel in the Caspian Sea and they also have tested high-altitude explosions with their Shahab III,” says Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), who participated recently in a National Defense University-sponsored discussion. “Terrorists think that electromagnetic pulse [EMP] or some type of [directed-energy] attack is their ultimate asymmetric weapon. Iran’s [actions] clarify that jihadist nation’s intent for the U.S. and Israel. We are not secure.”
The Iranian tests show exercises for an EMP assault, and Iranian military journals have recommended “such a strategy in an attack on America,” says Franks. “Will North Korea ever supply or sell nuclear technology or warheads to [non-state] terrorists? Will Iran develop and use a nuclear weapon? [If the answer is yes,] I believe that will mean terrorists the world over will have nuclear weapons, and EMP will be something we face.”
The reason to be alarmed is that “every expert recognizes the dramatic disruptions and cataclysmic collapses that a geomagnetic storm and EMP can bring to an electrical infrastructure,” says Franks. “Our first national security [priority] is to protect our major transformers from cascading destruction. With Roscoe Bartlett [R-Md.], I have introduced the Shield Act, which begins the process of protecting our electric infrastructure against natural and man-made EMP with automated hardware-based solutions.”
Bartlett, also a member of the House Armed Services Committee, adds interesting technical details to the gloomy predictions.
“In 1999, Vladimir Lukin [a member of the Russian parliament] said that ‘if we really wanted to hurt you, with no fear of retaliation, we would launch an SLBM [submarine-launched ballistic missile], detonate a nuclear weapon high over your country, and shut down your power grid and your communications for six months or so,’” says Bartlett. “Every one of our potential enemies knows all about EMP. It’s a very early occurrence in all their wargames.”
Detailed estimates of EMP effects from a single nuclear explosion, “maybe 300 mi. high over Iowa or Nebraska, [could] produce 200 kilovolts per meter,” asserts Bartlett. “We’ve never designed or tested anything to that level. Essentially all micro-electronics would die. It would take 30 years to replace and repair the big transformers around the world.”
The threat has not been lost on the U.S. military. This month the National Defense University conducted Operation Secure Grid 2011 at Fort McNair, Washington, the third tabletop exercise on U.S. electrical grid security. The series has so far looked at the consequences of enemy attacks and geomagnetic storms.
“One of the largest barriers to that disaster response is cross-agency coordination, a crucial element made more difficult when discussing the roles of authority [of various agencies],” says Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.), a member of the Homeland Security Committee. Part of the task now is to “highlight areas where U.S. and international improvement is needed to quickly react” to an electronic attack (EA).
“NATO is taking this problem seriously,” notes Chris Beck, president of the Electric Infrastructure Security Council. In addition, he says Israel’s ministry of national infrastructure is starting to take extra steps to examine the nation’s exposure and vulnerability, including the threat of EMP.
All of these issues become even more complicated because efforts to protect the national electrical grid are overlapping programs designed to shield the world’s Internet systems from cyberattack.
These electronic threats have grown to encompass solar storms (predicted to peak in 2012-13), nuclear weapon-produced EMPs created at the edge of the atmosphere, high-power microwave (HPM) weapons and all the malicious cybertools that are constantly being created. They all fall in the big bucket of EA, which is considered a key developmental goal for governments and military organizations around the world and, in particular, for nonstate terrorist and insurgent groups that have enough money to buy those technologies.
Cyberthreats, meanwhile, have a whole new dimension, since it has been proven that nonkinetic attacks can create physical damage on a large scale. The turbine room of a Siberian hydroelectric plant is a striking example of the kinetic effects that could be produced by inserting malicious code or even legitimate but flawed commands into an automatically controlled network.
The facility was wrecked in 2009 and dozens of workers were killed when a few errant keystrokes, sent over a wireless remote-control system, turned on a disused turbine scheduled for replacement. The turbine’s vibrations pulled it out of its steel and concrete mountings and turned it into what was described as a water hammer.
The Stuxnet worm is another example of kinetic effects produced by nonkinetic devices. A series of uranium-enriching centrifuges were sped up until they self-destructed while all indications available to plant managers looked normal.
Yet more destruction was produced in a U.S. laboratory when fewer than 30 lines of code were sent from a remote site to an industrial-size electrical generator that started cycling its circuit breakers at a high rate. In a very short time, the generator burst into smoke and flames.
Equally worrisome is a developing technology that allows invasion of industrial control networks with wireless links. That fear stems from what happened in Siberia.
Any system with antennas and/or remote wireless data links could be vulnerable. The U.S. Air Force demonstrated its Suter network-invasion capability by attacking integrated air-defense systems during Red Flag exercises. Researchers used an EC-130 Compass Call aircraft to generate an algorithm-filled data stream to pipe into the air-defense antenna of choice; an RC-135 Rivet Joint aircraft monitored results on the system being attacked.
The first phase of the experiment allowed the attackers to see what the enemy sensors attached to the network could detect. The second phase enabled attackers to take over the network as the system administrator, which allowed them to point sensors away from the attacking force. Finally, Suter permitted attackers to disable the remote firing units by invading the wireless links to the dispersed missile launchers.
Because U.S. weapons to destroy enemy electronics are in development and production, researchers assume that anything the U.S. is pursuing, others are also trying to develop.
New systems include at least two projects directed by the Air Armaments Center at Eglin AFB, Fla. One is focused on putting an HPM warhead into standard 500-, 1,000- and 2,000-lb. bomb shapes that can be fitted with precision-guided glide-bomb kits for standoff range operations. Offering even more range is the so-called Champ project, which uses an anti-electronics, HPM payload installed in a cruise missile.
In an associated development, Raytheon acquired Ktech, which specializes in directed-energy devices and cyberweapons and has plans for fitting such payloads in virtually any missile on the company’s production lines.
In addition, two of Raytheon’s legacy weapons—the high-speed anti-radiation missile (HARM) and the miniature air-launched decoy (MALD)—already play roles in the anti-electronics battlefield. HARM strikes emitters and a MALD-J variant jams them. A new version of the latter, MALD-V, is being built as a truck to carry a variety of nonkinetic warhead options.
For at least a decade, Boeing has been discussing reusable HPM devices sized for the weapons bay of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter or stealthy unmanned aerial systems (UAS) such as the Northrop Grumman X-47B. The penetrating F-22 also has been considered, but the consensus now is that HPM is not the right mission for a manned aircraft.
Instead, standoff missiles and UAS are becoming the airframes of choice for the most dangerous missions, contend U.S. aerospace industry specialists. Concepts include cruise missiles with wheels or parachute recovery systems.