The Business-Technology Weave

Jan 11 2018   1:15PM GMT


David Scott David Scott Profile: David Scott

Electric grid

Contrast Cars and Roads from 100 Years Ago with Today’s – Now compare poles and wires; what is our excuse for not progressing the grid in the face of EMP and terror threats?


Once upon a time, this country had no interstate highway system – that is, the interconnected freeways that allow 70+ mph vehicular travel from Maine to California with nary a red light.  A hundred years ago we had roads, but they were a patchwork of bricks, gravel, dirt, and mud.  Over time, a network of asphalt roads existed in mainly developed places, but there was no greater coast-to-coast, and north-to-south, network of superior roadways as represented by today’s interstate highway system.  Our highway system wasn’t here by magic.  How did it come to be?

Well, the Eisenhower Administration mounted the plan in the 1950s to emplace it:  The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, generally  known as the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act, was signed into law on June 29, 1956 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, with subsequent construction.

In comparing roads, cars and electrical poles of a hundred years past with today’s, anyone can see a strange anomaly .  Have a look at this picture, circa 1920s:

One hundred years ago, many roads didn’t have edge and center lines.  Most were not paved.  Safety measures such as railroad-crossing lights and gates, traffic lights, pedestrian walkways, and signage for dangerous curves, etc., were nearly non-existent.  Cars were noisy, drafty, and bumpy.  They had virtually no safety features, such as belts and airbags.  They didn’t even have padded dashes – the interior of cars was a harsh, unyielding, metal.  Even minor traffic accidents yielded broken bones.

Look at the enormous chasm we’ve crossed in terms of cars and roads; the utility truck shows the advance in our vehicles; handily, this picture also exposes the extreme vulnerability of above-ground infrastructure:

When we examine today’s roads and cars as compared to 100 years ago, we can readily see the enormous progressions and improvements.  However, when we examine telephone poles and lines from approximately 100 years ago, and compare them with today’s, we notice something very uncomfortable:  They look markedly the same.  With fair examination, this situation is quite astonishing… and to the informed reader, quite alarming.

The above ground infrastructure of the national electric grid, to include substations, towers, poles and wires, is quite ugly and inconvenient, when you think about it.  Weather events frequently interrupt power.  I lose power in my neighborhood when someone sneezes too hard.

Further, this above-ground infrastructure is extremely vulnerable to terror events and sabotage.  Why no grid-equivalent Federal Act for our electric power infrastructure such as what was done for the infrastructure of our highways?  In other words, why no National Interstate Grid and Defense Infrastructure Act for our power?  It is interesting that our water and sewage needs are largely underground.  How is it that your home has underground conduits for the delivery and removal of water, but above ground poles and wires servicing the delivery of power?

Beyond mere weather vulnerabilities, another one is looming – and it is an ‘elephant in the room’:  That is the matter of Electro-Magnetic Pulse (EMP).  Potential for catastrophic harm can now include huge geographic areas – even a nation itself – and varying conditions can happen from deliberate attack or natural forces, such as solar flares.

The easiest means of defeating a modern country – a country that relies on a Business-Technology Weave at the highest, lowest, and broadest levels – is through an EMP attack.  An EMP attack could be something as simple as a scud missile carrying a single nuclear warhead.  This missile need not be accurate for any specific target.  It need only be detonated at a suitable altitude:  the weapon would produce an electro-magnetic pulse that would knock out power in a region – all power – and more.

Not only would some measure of a nation’s power grid be out, but also generators and batteries would not work.  There would be no evacuation of affected areas:  Cars would not work, and all public transportation would be inoperable.  Even if trains, planes, and other mass transit were operable, the computers that enable their safe use would not be.  This would be due to the loss of all electronic data, rendering all computers useless.  There would be no banking, no stock market, no fiscal activity of any kind, and there would be no economy.

Hospitals would fail without power.  There would be no electronic communications: no mobile phones, no land phones, no e-mail, no television transmission, nor even radio.  There would be no refrigeration of food, which would quickly rot to become inconsumable.  Potable drinking water would quickly be expended, and the means to create more would not exist.  Fires would rage, since the ability to deliver and pump water would be virtually nonexistent.

No Federal Government would be able to govern – nor would any State or local government command any control over events  or actions.  No police department could be able to know where events were happening requiring response.  Priorities would be non-existent.  The only actionable situations would be those in a direct line of sight.  The Military would not be able to communicate.  Hence, there would be no chain-of-command; no control.  Scattered commands and units would soon begin operating autonomously in the vacuum.

The affected society, on all levels, would be sliced and diced into small groups and factions hell-bent on survival – the situation would be an almost immediate chaos.  As we’ve seen during New Orleans and other disasters, breakdown of the social order is rapid and deadly.  In this circumstance, it would also be prolonged, and possibly permanent – until the arrival of an enemy control.  Imagine, if you will, a peak, sustained, Katrina/New Orleans disaster, coast-to-coast.

An American Perspective

A Grim Knowledge:  In America’s case, a “burnout” of large scale, created by an extensive EMP attack, would create damage to equipment that takes years to replace.  Today, there are massive transformers in our power grid that are no longer manufactured in America.  This represents a very wide divide:  the conduct of business on a crucial support structure – that has no ready replacement in the event of failure.  These transformers can take a year to build – they then have to be transported, delivered, and installed.

At a Senate subcommittee hearing on the threat of EMP, scientific testimony yielded this statement: “The longer the basic outage, the more problematic and uncertain the recovery of any [infrastructure system] will be.  It is possible – indeed, seemingly likely – for sufficiently severe functional outages to become mutually reinforcing [emphasis added], until a point at which the degradation… could have irreversible effects on the country’s ability to support any large fraction of its present human population.”  This should sound familiar.  This is Runaway, resulting in Unrecoverability.

Here in America we also have to recognize that a nuclear-generated EMP attack can quite easily be mounted so as to affect the entire continental United States, parts of Canada, and parts of Mexico.  An EMP attack would not kill many people outright.  However, the comprehensive wallop of systems disablement would ripple and self-reinforce, having been characterized as throwing any receiving nation back to the mid-1800s.  Not quite true:  People in the mid-1800s relied on paper for records; horses and buggies for personal transportation; operated and maintained sewage and water systems without computers; fed themselves largely without refrigeration through local production of food; had not yet built reliance and vulnerabilities on comprehensive, instantaneous communication; and were in the middle of a reasonably ordered, stable, and progressing society.

Throwing today’s America, or any industrialized country, instantly back to the mid-1800s will result in a catastrophic loss of all social order.  It will also make that country a “walk-in” for assumption of control by others.

Forget the plodding, nebulous, contested, “threat” of climate change.  The threat of an EMP attack is a real risk – now – a part of where we are… NOW.

National Security:  ‘Where We Really Are’

In knowing where security stands, and where security is “stuck,” it is helpful to consider some statements from leading representatives; statements made more than ten years ago.  Congressman Roscoe Bartlett (R-6-MD), then Chairman of the House Projection Forces Subcommittee, stated on his website:

…America is vulnerable and virtually unprotected against a devastating EMP attack [emphasis added].  That’s the bad news.  The good news is that we can significantly reduce both the threat and impact of an EMP attack with relatively inexpensive steps that can be taken in the next few years [emphasis added].

The Congressman’s website did not detail a solution to the threat of EMP; rather, noting that we must develop “insurance” against the threat, and to “reduce” its impact once already occurring.  There is no suggestion of a mission or a project here.  Prevention is absent.

There are also those in government who propose guarding sensitive equipment from EMP attack by building some equipment to new “EMP proof” standards.  For example, ten years ago Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ), then Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Terrorism, Technology and Homeland Security, stated:

Fortunately, hardening key infrastructure systems and procuring vital backup equipment such as transformers is both feasible and – compared with the threat – relatively inexpensive, according to a comprehensive report on the EMP threat by a commission of prominent experts.  But it will take leadership by the Department of Homeland Security, the Defense Department, and other federal agencies, along with support from Congress, all of which have yet to materialize [emphasis added]. 

Here we may sense a “false solution,” as explained shortly.

The Best We Can Do?  These statements seem representative of the Federal government’s lagging (apathetic?) posture.  Recognize that these are the government representatives who were proactive, and leading, voices on EMP (comparatively speaking).  What can we glean from those statements?

  • The limit of hardening “key” infrastructure: Some infrastructure is left out of EMP protection.  Just as during New Orleans, there will be the perception that certain areas were left off the protection grid according to some devaluation of human life, or through a prioritization of certain regions’ protection over others.  Indeed, some areas will be left out, partly based on prioritizing others, in order to protect food stores, water, larger populations vs. smaller ones, and so on.  In any event, the difficulty will be how we set the standards for whom and what gets protection, and whom and what do not.  Recognize that following an EMP attack, “key” priority infrastructure assets will be like unstrung beads:  some areas will have power, many won’t – and all that goes with that.
  • The threat has been characterized by people in government, as well as Science, as being now. The “solution” could be ready in “the next few years” (assuming immediate start, and a perfect project).  Government’s estimation of the threat and ‘solution’ yields a divide that is difficult to exaggerate.

Because the divides are so large, and the consequence so dire, let’s direct our focus to this: there is a tremendous inadequacy here on government’s part in the face of this threat, and our current response to it.  Given the stakes, we are already too far into a schema of Inadequacy, Disaster, Runaway, and Unrecoverability – IDRU.

Terror Attack:  Today, possibilities of comprehensive national catastrophe (to any nation) are no longer in the realm of Science Fiction, or held in abeyance through MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction, as during the Cold War with the former Soviet Union).  Just consider the well-known pronouncements coming from North Korea.   But too, we face extremely large harm from asymmetrical sources:  Sources that are weaker than their opponents in conventional terms.  They can’t compete through strength in numbers:  neither by membership; number of conventional arms; number of nuclear arms, or even in the numbers of their sympathizers.  Their goals can be anathema to the vast majority.

But these asymmetric forces’ business and objectives (that which they’ll do, in support of their desired outcomes, respectively) are as strong as they can possibly be.  In fact, their business trumps any concern for survival of any specific individual of their own.  And, their objectives include the stated destruction of whole societies.  We must realize too, that with these groups, an effective internal check-and-balance on unreasonable actions diminishes rapidly as the size of the considered group diminishes.

However, tremendous will – even infinite will – means nothing without some form of power.  Today, power is moving closer – closing a divide – with this tremendous will of the relative few.  Soon, if not now, weapons representing delivery of catastrophic harm will be available to the few – no matter how vile their agenda, no matter how onerous their task in procurement.  Our argument here is not the specific “who” – that is not necessary in setting the awareness.  For the present, we can emphasize a keen awareness that asymmetric attack forces are closing a divide: Until recently, the achievement of their objectives was denied because of the simple divide between their will to dispense widespread destruction, and their means to do it.

It is reasonable to assume that once closing a divide between will and means, a complete dedication to “business” will be paired with extraordinarily damaging “technology.”  One group or another will pull a trigger or push a button once closing this divide.

A Start to Part of an Overall Solution: We must recognize that one component of a strategic national plan to secure our country in the face of modern risks is to mount a Federal Infrastructure Modernization Act, which will include plans to put ALL infrastructure into underground weather/EMP-proof conduits and spaces.  This will include power stations, substations, the comprehensive grid, and even power distribution to individual buildings and homes – any structure whereby power is delivered and utilized.

It is quite possible that the basic shell components of the Project Management Framework (PMF) that was used for the highway act of 1956 could be updated and repurposed: For example, cost apportionments and duties across Federal, State, and Local agencies.  The model for private and government resources has been struck, and can be repurposed.  Many of the raw construction models and components can at least provide serious clues for how to build a plan, and subsequent project for this.

Now Playing (NP): Traneing In: John Coltrane with the Red Garland Trio, Prestige 7123, 1958, original vinyl.

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