Like cyber or IEMI attack scenarios, Coordinated physical attack on critical infrastructure sector nodes could create power outages of exceptionally wide geographic scope and long duration. In addition, the risk of integrating physical with EMP, cyber and/or IEMI in a combined arms campaign represents another, disturbing area of risk.
Military strategists have long understood that by adversaries attacking with multiple means at once can achieve a greater effect than if each element were used separately or sequentially. In a classic demonstration of the value of combined arms strategies, Napoleon’s Grande Armee employed infantry, artillery and cavalry in integrated operations to help him achieve decisive victories. Modern militaries frequently combine air, infantry and armor forces to create such synergies.
A former CEO of the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), expressed this apprehension in testimony to the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee:
“I am most concerned about coordinated physical and cyber-attacks intended to disable elements of the power grid or deny electricity to specific targets, such as government or business centers, military installations, or other infrastructures.”
Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta spoke along similar lines:
“The most destructive scenarios involve cyber actors launching several attacks on our critical infrastructure at one time, in combination with a physical attack on our country. Attackers could also seek to disable or degrade critical military systems and communication networks. The collective result of these kinds of attacks could be a “cyber Pearl Harbor:” an attack that would cause physical destruction and the loss of life. In fact, it would paralyze and shock the nation and create a new, profound sense of vulnerability1.”
COVID-19’s historic and continuing, tragic cost in lives, health and societal well-being represents the first Black Sky-class pandemic event in modern times. Had this pandemic had (or if it develops) somewhat higher morbidity, it could have become – not merely “Black Sky-class” – but an actual global complex catastrophe, associated with large scale infrastructure disruption, and the potential for unprecedented risk to societal continuity.
Risk to the fragile global financial system
The continuity of our global financial is a particularly important, aggregating example of modern civilization’s vulnerability to a potentially more severe pandemic.
An article in the July/August 2020 issue of The Atlantic’s article entitled “The Looming Bank Collapse” provides a visualization of this risk. The article highlights concerns of major economists in the early months of the pandemic that the economic stresses of the pandemic might have led to collapse of the global financial system.
Our civilization does not currently have a “fallback plan” for such a collapse. Without the banking, credit, insurance, reinsurance, monetary and other financial system instruments that are essential to economic and societal continuity, our civilization’s economies could not function.
The risks associated with a more extreme pandemic are unthinkably catastrophic. In a scenario in which, for example, a pandemic’s impact caused collapse of the financial frameworks enabling production and distributions of the goods and services we require to survive, societal and national continuity would be at risk, worldwide.
What can be done?
The world’s leading financial institutions work diligently to develop resilient mechanisms to ensure that shocks to the system can be survived. These mechanisms must now be expanded to address far more extreme risks than those currently addressed – including, for example, implementing a capability to enable prearranged financial guarantees for critical services and corporations, coupled with a recognized, temporary transaction logging system designed to operate even in long duration, subcontinent-scale power outages.
For more information, see the Global Resilience Commission resources, elsewhere in this site, or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
1 Panetta, Leon.“Defending the Nation from Cyber Attack.” Speech to Business Executives for National Security, New York, 11 October 2012. U.S. Department of Defense p. 2.
While utilities and government agencies have made progress in strengthening security against cyber threats, the destructiveness and sophistication of cyber weapons are growing. A successful, severe cyber-attack could cause serious damage to critical infrastructures, on national scales.
An IEMI device creates an electromagnetic pulse, potentially far higher in magnitude than EMP, though over very short ranges. Use of such devices on multiple, critical elements of critical infrastructures could create Black Sky Hazard level impacts.