World War Sabotage

If we end up in war with either Russia or China, it might well be the case that armed conflict might not happen all that often—if at all.  It could instead be the case that attacks on critical infrastructure—sabotage, in other words—will serve as a proxy.

Bombs and bullets are terrible for a nation’s public image, civilian casualties tend to rile up world opinion, and body bags being shipped back home inevitably depress morale.  However, hacking an enemy’s electrical grid, employing a computer virus to crash a water treatment plant, or disrupting a nation’s air traffic control system can all be exceedingly effective ways to project power and cause chaos without the difficulties inherent in the deployment military forces.  Given the escalating costs and risks involved with actual shots being fired, we might be entering an entirely new phase of warfare between the world’s three remaining superpowers.

The recent unexplained destruction of the undersea Nordstream 1 and Nordstream 2 pipelines carrying natural gas from Russia to Europe provides a stark lesson regarding the destructive capacity of a well-considered sabotage attack—and the public relations possibilities of subterfuge instead of open confrontation.

European industries now face a crippling loss of the natural gas needed to fuel their production, layoffs and expensive government bailouts are on the menu, skyrocketing energy costs will sink small businesses throughout the European Union and leave citizens shivering through the winter ahead—all without a single shot being fired.  Moreover, paranoid and angry attempts to assign blame for the pain dead ahead will cause more political discord and suspicion, which can be turned into effective propaganda for whatever nation can seize the advantage.  Today’s guessing game about who had both the means and the motive to blow up these two pipelines will be tomorrow’s angry denunciations and rage-induced foreign policy debacles.

Sabotage has a long and dishonorable record in the history of warfare, but the reality of our increasingly technological age is that multiple fragile and interdependent systems must work together seamlessly—or disaster quickly follows.  

Water, electricity, communications, the movement of goods by ship, rail, and air, manufacturing, retail, banking, healthcare, and daily transportation are all riding on lines of computer code and are exposed to disruption at key choke points.  Even temporarily disabling, for example, GPS location and tracking on a regional or worldwide basis would create havoc that would slow international transportation and commerce to a crawl.  These are not systems that are hardened or well protected, and a small group of determined individuals could cause harm to literally billions of people without even taking a pistol out of a holster.

We had a small taste of these types of potential problems last May, when the Colonial Pipeline System—which carries gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel on a stretch that runs from Houston, Texas to Linden, New Jersey—was shut down by a ransomware attack.  As a result, one half of all the critical fuels consumed along America’s eastern coastal region, a total of 2.5 million barrels each day, simply stopped flowing.  The instantaneous shortages and sharp price increases were thankfully resolved quickly by the pipeline operator in this particular instance, but one can readily imagine the catastrophic effects of a fuel shutoff that ran on for many months and perhaps involved physical harm to infrastructure that would have been difficult to repair.

Now consider a plausible and horrifying scenario that would cripple the world’s financial system in an attack very similar to that which destroyed the two Nordstream pipelines. Roughly 99% of international internet traffic travels through undersea cables surrounding Europe.  The same state actor that blew up those Nordstream pipelines could easily do the same to one or more of these undersea cables, which would bring international banking, electronic money transfers, and foreign exchange trading—all of which underpin our globalized economy—to a crashing halt.  It is almost impossible to overemphasize the catastrophic effects of such an infrastructure attack, and the shock waves would affect virtually every nation on earth.  

Many of our critical systems—too many, really—are both irreplaceable and undefended, so we are truly at the mercy of determined state-sponsored saboteurs.  Nations need no longer send attack aircraft screaming across the skies or roll tanks across a neighbor’s borders to scare them into submission or inflict harm.  We are tremendously advanced yet tremendously vulnerable—and this reality will change the way we fight wars today and in the future.