Communications in a Grid-Down Scenario
Part 1: The Threat
On those days when life disappoints by its boring predictability, one can always spice things up by clicking over to ZeroHedge. Most recently, we saw a warning about the suspicious convergence of the much ballyhooed November 4 “Antifa Apocalypse” with a DoD training exercise simulating a collapse of the national electric grid due to a solar storm.
The day passed, the grid is still up, and the black-clad ninja horde did not materialize. But who knew? Maybe since I left government service, breakthroughs in efficiency and organization have resulted in major training exercises requiring less than 6-12 months’ planning and coordination.
Maybe improvements in the handling of classified information, and changes in human nature now allow tens of thousands of government employees to hold conspiratorial secrets without a single leak of the nefarious truth to our 24-hour internet watchdogs. Maybe our self-styled leftist revolutionaries have read their Mao after all, and realized it wasn’t quite time yet to go kinetic.
But there is still some value in that ZH article, and in recent pieces at Gates of Vienna, FoxNews, and even Newsweek, which draw attention to the vulnerability of the nation’s electric grid and communications to a broad array of natural and manmade threats.
Distributed Security, Inc. (DSI) focuses upon self-reliance, and upon institutions (businesses, churches, schools) and communities providing for their own security against emerging threats in an era of budget challenges, political dysfunction, delayed law enforcement response, and an ineffective judicial system.
“Situational awareness” is a common, if not over-used term; for an individual, or even for an institution in a short term crisis, it depends on the evidence of our five senses, the evidence provided by others in direct communication with us, and our ability to assess this evidence in the moment and anticipate short term developments. When we are considering longer term or larger scope events, that will not be enough.
A block can lose power from a lightning strike on a pole-mounted transformer. We see the result, can probably look out a window to see that the effect is limited and local, and know from experience that the outage is likely to be repaired quickly.
The safety and security consequences are not hard to assess or address. If that glance out your window shows no lights on anywhere in sight; if vehicles have stalled on the roads; if airplane crashes, or gunfire, or explosions follow on the heels of the power outage; if battery-powered car or portable radios are not working, or are receiving nothing but static, you have a crisis of another sort. As DSI says in our manual Unit Tactics: For the Defense of Neighborhood and Community:
Sustainability implies a long perspective, versus anticipating and responding to a short term crisis. Most organizations or communities can, under pressure, take extraordinary measures to react to disasters or anticipate imminent, short term threats. Sustaining that response over the long term, when conditions beyond your control do not improve, is a challenge of a different order.
The potential for major, long-lasting disruptions caused by natural disaster, political upheaval, economic instability, war, or terrorism – or a cascading, mutually reinforcing combination of these – require us to contemplate a crisis situation that could continue for days, weeks, or months. Return to pre-crisis conditions may be slow.
This series of articles will consider impacts and responses to a large scale power outage, specifically from the perspective of restoring and maintaining your situational awareness through communications.
First, let’s define the threat. There are five potential large-scale, long duration threats to your electric power grid:
- Solar storms, also known as geomagnetic storms or coronal mass ejections (CME). While low strength, regional impacts from these events are relatively common, high intensity G4 or G5 events can be global in scope.
- Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) generated by portable radio-frequency (RF) weapons in either a focused beam or a limited area. These weapons are simple to construct and employ.
- HEMP (high altitude EMP), created by the detonation of a nuclear device hundreds of miles above the surface and affecting essentially all electrical and electronic components within line of sight – potentially continental in scope.
- Kinetic, low-tech attacks on components of the power grid, presaged by the 2014 attack on a California substation where rifle fire disabled 17 large transformers in a matter of minutes. As an isolated attack, it was quickly mitigated by rerouting power; but that substation was not operational again for 27 days – in an environment where no other components of the grid were simultaneously attacked. The potential for larger scale action is obvious, and recalls the prevalence of small scale, low-tech attacks rather than WMD or other large scale mass casualty events in recent years.
- Cyber-attack on the SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) infrastructure that controls the power grid.
Some of these events could be civilization-killers, and that’s a discussion for another day or another forum. But protracted regional or even national effects could easily result from limited scope or partially successful attacks, or solar storms of lesser magnitude than the Carrington Event of 1859, which could cause 0.6 to 2.6 trillion dollars of damage if it occurred today.
In your organization’s threat assessment, you may assign all these possibilities values somewhere in the “low probability, high consequence” quarter, but as with any such, you should consider the implications and take what measures you can to prepare for and mitigate the effects.
In subsequent articles, we will discuss some of your options.
Bill Tallen – EVP Tactical Operations, Distributed Security Inc. Bill had a 20-year career with the DOE. He helped to found DOE’s Special Response Force program, developing and teaching urban and close quarter battle techniques to Federal Agents charged with recovery of lost assets. Bill holds the degree of Master of Arts in National Security and Strategic Studies from the U.S. Naval War College.