Respond to John:
When commanders in the military—the branch is immaterial—develop plans for operations, they are required to template enemy actions and possible responses. They generally do so by looking at two things: the enemy’s most likely (or probable) course of action, and the enemy’s most dangerous (or deadly) course of action. This week’s question looks for the greatest threat, not necessarily the most probable threat.
Most Dangerous Course of Action
The greatest threat would be the complete shutdown of any ability for the United States to respond to an attack, regardless of which front that attack may originate. The Department of Defense recognizes five warfighting domains which must be utilized for both offensive and defensive operations: air, ground, sea, space, and cyber (Vergon, 2019, para 1). Granted, these are domains which must be owned for waging war, and though the forum question doesn’t directly speak of war, the most dangerous threat to the United States would be to engage in war with any of the 2+3 National Defense Threats: China and Russia, followed by North Korea, Iran, and violent extremism (Mehta, 2019, para 15). Clausewitz long ago claimed that war is simply another form of politics, and when the root purpose for war is dissected, that claim has more credence than most people would like to acknowledge.
The energy sector is the foundation for everything that works in the United States today, whether it be oil production and transportation, natural gas collection, or the electrical grid. Everything Americans’ do is tied in some way to energy; for proof, just try to live for a week without it. Without energy, food spoils, medications go bad, digital finances mean nothing, automobiles fail to operate (which also mean common trade goods are not delivered, and an average Walmart will usually receive several semi-truck loads a day), communications are nil (resulting in societal isolation), water and wastewater pumps do not function, hospitals cannot operate, and the list keeps going. If a way can be found to adversely affect the electrical grid, the nation would be instantly catapulted back to the dark ages.
There are many fiction novels (and conspiracy theories) on such issues as electromagnetic pulse (EMP), and for every theory there is a think-tank or politician who immediately casts that theory down as not even remotely possible. As an intelligent human being, however, the question must be asked: is EMP truly not possible, or do the “powers that be” not want the average person worrying about such things, because if enough people worry about it, societal damage could be the end result? Take a minute to think about that, and while you do so, consider also that not all threats to the grid are manmade. How does climate change affect the atmosphere and the various layers of atmospheric shielding between humanity and the ravages of space debris or solar radiation? Could a natural disaster of cataclysmic proportions take out the grid, such as a hurricane which causes a cascade, or (Heaven forbid) the super-volcano under Yellowstone finally lets loose? All of these possibilities sound very far-fetched, and while not immediately probable, at some level they are all possible. All are addressed in terms of resiliency, though there is little outward proof that resiliency measures are anywhere near where they need to be.
An almost immediate repercussion of a loss of power to the grid would be the loss of control for the 59 nuclear power plants in the United States, which operate a total of 97 nuclear reactors (U.S. Energy Information Administration, 2019, para 1). Fukushima had just three reactors go into meltdown due to lack of regulated cooling because of something as mundane as a tsunami; this resulted in a death toll of at least 1,000, and the forced evacuation of over 100,000 (World Nuclear Association, 2018, para 1-2). When a map of operational reactors in the United States is referenced, it is difficult not to notice that if they were all damaged simultaneously the entire eastern seaboard would be destroyed; if not from the initial explosions, at least by the impending fallout. When Oppenhiemer first saw the destructive power of raw nuclear energy in the Trinity Tests, it is said that he quoted a verse from the Bhagavad Gita: “…Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” Humanity barely understands nuclear power and has yet to create methods to fully control it.
Most Likely Course of Action
All of that was a fun exercise into the absolutely worst possible scenario. More likely than the scenario above is one where an attack comes through the cyber domain. Most nations do not seek all-out war with the United States, but if a low key (but nonetheless effective) attack could be executed through the anonymity of cyber space, the effects would be felt across the nation.
A cyberattack on the communications sector would cripple the nation, if executed properly. Cell phones would cease to operate, internet-reliant and SCADA systems could not communicate, and the government’s ability to pass instructions down through the lower echelons would stop. This would result in a lack on intelligence being passed up through the decision-making chain, as well; sound decisions are based on real-time intelligence.
The same cyberattack on the communications sector would play havoc on the financial services sector. The vast majority of the nation’s money—both private and public sector—is not physical, but digital, and only exists in banking servers. Damage to these systems would crush the national economy, which could also damage the global economy since they are all inextricably linked through trade. The question remains, however, if the communications sector was damaged from such an attack, how long would it take to regenerate? If the financial services sector was damaged, could it be regenerated, and how much financial wealth would have been lost in the interim? In light of cyberattacks which have been executed over the past few years, can this sector ever gain true resiliency?
Mehta, A. (2019). The Pentagon’s National Military Strategy is done, and it’s Unclear if the Public Will Ever See It. Defense News. February 13, 2019. Retrieved from https://www.defensenews.com/pentagon/2019/02/13/the-pentagons-national-military-strategy-is-done-and-its-unclear-if-the-public-will-ever-see-it/.
U.S. Energy Information Administration (2019). How Many Nuclear Power Plants are in the United States, and where are they Located? Independent Statistics and Analysis. June 18, 2019. Retrieved from https://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.php?id=207&t=3.
Vergon, D. (2019). Multidomain Operations Rely on Partnerships to Succeed. U.S. Department of Defense. February 12, 2019. Retrieved from https://www.defense.gov/explore/story/Article/1755520/multidomain-operations-rely-on-partnerships-to-succeed/.
World Nuclear Association (2018). Fukushima Daiichi Accident. Retrieved from https://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/safety-and-security/safety-of-plants/fukushima-accident.aspx.