Did the Chinese military cause the largest blackout in the history of North America?
That is the assertion of Tim Bennett, the former president of the Cyber Security Industry Alliance, who says U.S. intelligence officials confirmed to him the People’s Liberation Army gained access to a network that controlled electric power systems serving the northeastern U.S. in 2003.
Some 50 million people were affected by the 9,300-square-mile blackout that hit parts of New York, Canada, Michigan and Ohio.
The official explanation for the power outage was that overgrown trees came into contact with strained high-voltage lines in Ohio. But the story of this possible skirmish in the “electromagnetic spectrum” is widely whispered about in defense and intelligence circles. It is referred to by some as the first battle of World War III – a conflict to be fought asymmetrically in cyberspace and with weapons that might seem like science fiction.
The Moscow newspaper Zavtra reported only a week ago that Russia has developed “special powerful electromagnetic impulse generators that may be used in design of new type radars and as a basis of electromagnetic weapons that will render enemy electronics inoperable.”
“The U.S. Army is convinced meanwhile that the Russians have already designed ‘kinetic weapons’ and ‘directed energy weapons’ (apparently lasers) for ASAT warfare,” the article continued. “In any event, the Americans suspect that the recent episode with the Chinese laser that damaged an American spysat became possible precisely because Moscow had made this technology available to China.”
The superweapons being developed for the next global conflict began coming into sharper focus last winter when China destroyed one of its own aging, low-Earth-orbit weather satellites while it was circling at an altitude of 500 miles, using a ground-based, direct ascent anti-satellite weapon.
This year, the U.S., using its sea-based Aegis missile defense system, shot down a disabled American intelligence satellite at 100 or so miles altitude as it tumbled uncontrollably toward the planet.
The Defense Department says China is developing non-kinetic means of attacking satellites, such as jamming and blinding, and using lasers, microwave, particle beam and electromagnetic pulse weapons.
Cyber-warfare, one of the proven strengths of the Chinese military, can also be used as an anti-satellite capability. In congressional testimony this year, the director of national intelligence stated, “Counter-command, control and sensor systems, to include communications satellite jammers and ASAT weapons, are among Beijing’s highest military priorities.”
Bennett, meanwhile, told the National Journal he believes Chinese cyber-hackers were also responsible for another U.S. blackout last February in Florida – one that affected 3 million customers.
Bennett told the National Journal he decided to speak publicly about the incidents to point out that security for the nation’s critical electronic infrastructures is weak and to emphasize that government and company officials haven’t sufficiently acknowledged these vulnerabilities.
The National Journal said a second information-security expert independently corroborated Bennett’s account of the Florida blackout.
Asked point blank by the National Journal if Washington knew of hacker involvement in the two blackouts, Joel Brenner, the government’s senior counterintelligence official, said: “I can’t comment on that.” But he added, “It’s certainly possible that sort of thing could happen. The kinds of network exploitation one does to explore a network and map it and learn one’s way around it has to be done whether you are going to steal information, bring [the network] down, or corrupt it. The possible consequences of this behavior are profound.”
In response to what observers agree is an increasing number of attacks in cyberspace, the U.S. Air Force is in the process of setting up a Cyberspace Command, headed by a two-star general and comprising about 160 individuals assigned to a handful of bases. It is reportedly dedicated to the proposition that “the next war will be fought in the electromagnetic spectrum.”
And the weapons and tactics of that war will not be limited to planting program viruses in computer systems.
According to several sources, the Chinese, Russians, Americans, British and French have all made progress in the development of electro-magnetic pulse weapons and directed-energy weapons.
In May, for instance, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 5658, the Duncan Hunter National Defense Authorization Act of 2008 by a vote of 384 to 23. The bill included $5 million for acceleration of the Directed Energy and Electronic Weapons Systems program and specifically the Electromagnetic Railgun at Dahlgren.
The Railgun was successfully tested last October. It fires non-explosive projectiles at high speeds, using electricity rather than gun powder. The technology could increase the striking range of U.S. Navy ships more than tenfold by the year 2020.
The railgun works by sending electric current along parallel rails, creating an electromagnetic force so powerful it can fire a projectile at tremendous speed.
Another form of new electromagnetic weaponry is the portable EMP device. These are devices that can be mounted or carried aboard vehicles, aircraft, ships, even missiles. While the stage of development of such weapons remains a shadowy question, U.S. military as well as foreign military sources suggest America already has portable EMP devices and has at least considered using them in the Afghan and Iraq theaters. Since these weapons are non-lethal and used mainly to disrupt electronics and communication, their use might not even be detected by enemies.
Portable EMP weapons can be used quickly, irrespective of weather conditions, and against a wide variety of targets with minimal risk to civilian populations. Some form of EMP weapon would almost assuredly be used in the kind of surprise attack scenarios being developed, for example, against Iran’s nuclear facilities.
But even Iran is said to be experimenting with EMP weapons.
More than four years after a stunning report about America’s vulnerability to a nuclear electromagnetic pulse attack was released to Congress, the House Armed Services Committee will hear testimony from the scientist who issued the warning and who believes Iran is pursuing such an option, WorldNetDaily reported today.
William R. Graham, President Reagan’s top science adviser and the chairman of the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack, will update the committee Thursday morning. Graham warned in 2005 that Iran was not only covertly developing nuclear weapons, but was already testing ballistic missiles specifically designed to destroy America’s technical infrastructure with the aim of neutralizing the world’s lone superpower.
The radical Shiite regime has conducted successful tests to determine if its Shahab-3 ballistic missiles, capable of carrying a nuclear warhead, can be detonated by a remote-control device while still in high-altitude flight, Graham said in his report.
Graham said then there was no other plausible explanation for such tests than preparation for the deployment of electromagnetic pulse weapons – even one of which could knock out America’s critical electrical and technological infrastructure, effectively sending the continental U.S. back to the 19th century with a recovery time of months or years.
Iran would have that capability – at least theoretically – as soon as it has one nuclear bomb ready to arm such a missile.
Iran surprised intelligence analysts by describing the mid-flight detonations of missiles fired from ships on the Caspian Sea as “successful” tests. Even primitive Scud missiles could be used for this purpose. And top U.S. intelligence officials reminded members of Congress that there is a glut of these missiles on the world market. They are currently being bought and sold for about $100,000 apiece.
Others agree with Graham’s sobering assessment.
“A terrorist organization might have trouble putting a nuclear warhead ‘on target’ with a Scud, but it would be much easier to simply launch and detonate in the atmosphere,” wrote Sen. John Kyl, R-Ariz., in the Washington Post in 2005 after reading Graham’s report. “No need for the risk and difficulty of trying to smuggle a nuclear weapon over the border or hit a particular city. Just launch a cheap missile from a freighter in international waters – al-Qaida is believed to own about 80 such vessels – and make sure to get it a few miles in the air.”
The Iranian missile tests were more sophisticated and capable of detonation at higher elevations – making them more dangerous.
Detonated at a height of 60 to 500 kilometers above the continental U.S., one nuclear warhead could cripple the country – knocking out electrical power and circuit boards and rendering the U.S. domestic communications impotent.