May 302012
 

Could an airplane's computers be tricked into misbehaving and causing the plane to crash?

In our recent article about the implications of a war with Iran, we mentioned the potential of Iran to mount a bloodless cyber-attack against us, with their hackers attacking our infrastructure’s computers from the comfort of their homes and offices in Iran, rather than soldiers attacking us more directly.

It is our feeling that few people appreciate the dangers and risks of a cyber-attack, and in the last couple of days there have been a couple of interesting news items that help to put this in context.  We discuss these below.

But, first, as a quick summary about cyber-vulnerabilities, do you remember back to the fuss about the Y2K bug?  This concern happily did not translate to a nightmare reality – but not because the concern was unfounded, but due to enormous efforts (and many billions of dollars) at rewriting and updating software in the several years prior to that date subsequent to people realizing that there was a problem that otherwise would occur.

The concern back then was what would happen if all sorts of computers started to malfunction due to date logic errors – computers as diverse as those that operate lifts, those that operate food refrigeration facilities, and so on.  Think of anything you do in your life today, and you’ll quickly find some sort of computer/controller is directly related to the smooth experience you expect and usually enjoy.  Indeed, we challenge you to think of something that is moderately important in your life which could work if the ‘behind the scenes’ computers malfunctioned.

The invidious nature of cyber-attacks is that to defend against them, the computer systems being attacked must be 100% invulnerable and bug-free.  As you surely know, the 100% perfect, bug-free,.computer program or operating system does not exist.  Such paragons of computing perfection may have existed, decades ago, when computers were very much simpler.  But nowadays, with millions of lines of programming in modern computer programs, and many more millions of different combinations of scenarios/events, it is close to impossible to make software bug-free.  As proof of this impossibility, a decade or two ago, software developers rewrote their guarantees and they no longer warrant their software to be bug-free and for sure they disclaim any liability for any problems arising from bugs in their software.

Because we don’t know what, where, and how such bugs exist and can be exploited (if we did know, the bugs would presumably be resolved), it is very hard to safeguard computers from cyber-attack.  Even if we completely disconnect computers from the internet, they are not truly isolated.  The underlying operating system and the even lower-level firmware and BIOS type programming built into the actual hardware all had to come from somewhere – there are plenty of examples of infected distribution disks that people have used to load computer operating systems onto fresh new computers, or infected software direct from a manufacturer, or of actual hardware with ‘back doors’ (see below) deliberately engineered into them.

The vulnerabilities continue.  Every time a person shares a file, there is a chance that there is some sort of infection in that file.  Even a simple safe seeming word processing document can contain programs these days.

An Example of a Current Cyber-Attack

With that as background, it is helpful to see the latest real-world example of a military style cyber-attack.  As we mentioned in our earlier article about Iran, while Iran is one of only five nations known to have a cyber army, Iran is – to date – more notable for having been on the receiving end of cyber-attacks rather than of generating them.  The Stuxnet virus was the highest profile (but not only) example of a cyber-attack on Iran when our article was written, but now news has come out of a newer more sophisticated attack, using what is termed the Flame virus.

Here’s a good article about what Flame is and be sure to look at the graphic that sets out some of the things this virus can do as well.  Amazingly, it seems that the Flame virus has been ‘in the wild’ – ie, out there, infecting computers, and collecting/distributing data – for between two and possibly five years, and only now is being subject to public disclosure.

At present, the big difference between Stuxnet and Flame is that the former was used to destroy equipment controlled by virally infected controllers (here’s an explanation), whereas the latter is currently operating in an intelligence gathering mode.  But who knows what else Flame might be capable of, and also, who knows what other independent infections Flame hasn’t subsequently created in the machines it now inhabits.

Our point is simply this.  If a country as ‘closed’ as Iran, a country that has been subject to past cyber-attacks, can be re-infected again and again with viruses, and if it can take up to five years for these infections to be discovered, who knows what is residing on key computers here in the US already, let alone what might infect them in the future.

Planes Falling From the Skies – An Example of a Potential Risk

Now for something a bit closer to home.  Until recently, all planes were controlled mechanically.  The pilot would turn the control column in the cockpit, and a series of wires would then carry that movement back to the ailerons, elevators and rudder and make them move in direct response to the movement on the control column.  Similarly, moving the throttle levels on the quadrant in the cockpit also directly controlled the engines.

It used to be the same in our cars, too.  In nearly all cases, our brakes are still directly controlled, albeit with ‘power’ boosting systems, and the same with the steering, but most modern cars these days no longer have a physical link between the gas pedal and the carburetor (of course, most cars don’t even have a carburetor now, they use fuel injection instead).

The reason our cars still have direct links between the controls we operate and the wheels is for safety.  There’s much less that can go wrong with a mechanical series of levers and rods and wires.

With planes as with cars, the increasing complexity of modern jet or car engines saw the mechanical linkage between throttle levers and the engines now replaced with computer controls.  Your foot on the gas pedal or the pilot’s moving the throttle lever merely sends a signal to an engine management computer that you want more or less power, and the computer then decides how to interpret that control, not just adjusting the fuel flow but also adjusting timings, compression levels, and possibly gear selections too.  This makes our cars (and planes) run more smoothly and fuel efficiently, and is generally a good thing.

For a plane, moving the flight controls – the control column – also have interactions with the plane’s speed and need for engine power, in a complex and changing relationship depending on many factors, so airplane manufacturers are replacing the previous mechanical linkages to the flight control surfaces on the plane’s wings, rudder and elevator with computerized controls.

Now, when the pilot moves the stick back and to the right, the computer thinks about that instruction and decides how best to interpret it with an optimized combination of engine setting adjustments, and movements to all three primary flight control surfaces, as well as to secondary control surfaces too (trim tabs, air brakes, etc).  The computer is supposed to be more clever than the pilot, and won’t allow dangerous flying commands to be accepted (although usually there is a command mode that can be manually selected where the computer is told to obediently do everything exactly as instructed, even if the computer thinks the command is wrong).  The flying control instruments on a modern Airbus plane are almost exactly the same as the joystick and throttle lever you can buy at a computer store to connect to your computer to play a Flight Simulator game.

Fly by Wire Introduces Vulnerabilities as well as Conveniences

This new type of airplane control is called ‘fly by wire’ in the sense of flying by computer control rather than by direct pilot control.  It is usually considered to be a good thing, although there are possible cases where a ‘miscommunication’ between the pilots and the flight computer may have resulted in airplane crashes (most recently the Air France flight AF447 that crashed in the Atlantic en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris in June 2009).

However, what happens if the computer that interprets the pilot’s requests and decides how to translate a movement of the pilot joystick into changes in the airplane’s control surfaces and engine power settings deliberately does the wrong thing?  What say the request to the computer to just do exactly what the pilot is asking is ignored?  Or maybe the computer misunderstands exactly what the pilot is asking.  This sounds like the HAL 9000 computer from the movie/book 2001: A Space Odyssey and indeed, that is a great example of the possible outcomes.

The famous ‘blue screen of death crash’ in Windows could be a literal blue screen of death crash on a plane – with a misbehaving computer causing the sea to fill the pilots’ windshield as a plane plunges unstoppably out of the skies and into the ocean beneath (as was what happened with AF447).

It is rather scary that we now risk our lives on planes controlled by computers when we know, from personal experience, that computer ‘crashes’ are common events.  The number of fly-by-wire airplanes is increasing, not only with every new Airbus plane sold, but now with new Boeing planes also being fly-by-wire.

We have been talking about inadvertent errors and logic bugs.  What say the computer controllers were deliberately infected with malicious code that was designed to cause planes to unstoppably crash?  What say, for example, these controllers had a virus in them that said ‘at exactly a particular time on a particular day, move engine power to maximum and set the plane in a crash dive’.  So that at the same instant, all around the world, hundreds (more likely, thousands) of planes all simultaneously went into nose dives and crashed into whatever was below, and of course, in all cases, killing everyone on board.

That could never happen, right?  Wrong!  It is all too easy to see how such a thing could happen.  Maybe while we are protecting our airports and airplanes with metal detectors and scanners to check the passengers, the real threat to our aviation system is something very different indeed – an ‘invisible’ passenger – a cyber threat that the airport security guards have no way of detecting.

For a specific example of a specific vulnerability, please see this article about how one of the control chips in modern military and civilian planes has a ‘back door’ written into it – a way for instructions to be secretly inserted into its control code, bypassing the normal way of doing so and the controls/restrictions placed on that normal way.

Back Doors

Think of this back door as being like a secret passage in an old house.  If you know exactly where to press the secret opening lever, all of a sudden, a wall in the study/library swings open, and you can then roam around the house at will, using secret spy holes to peek in on what people are doing in other rooms in the house, and using other secret doors to appear in other parts of the house unexpectedly.  Other people in the house might suspect there are secret passages, but if they don’t know exactly where and how to press the hidden lever, they’ll never get into the secret passages.

It is the same with computers.  There might be an entire set of instructions hidden inside a computer chip, but when some trigger event occurs, these extra instructions will suddenly start executing.  A similar thing is relatively common for benign purposes – what are called ‘Easter Eggs’ – hidden extra routines in programs that if you know exactly what set of key strokes to enter, you can trigger.  Here is one such list of computer easter eggs to give you examples of what they are and how they appear.

The article also obliquely and delicately points out a vulnerability that impacts on nearly every piece of computer control circuitry these days.  Although the chips may be designed and developed in the US or other ‘friendly’ country, they tend to be manufactured in a third party country outside of our direct control.

What is to stop the chip manufacturer (in this particular case, in China) from deliberately changing part of the specification so as to create an obscured ‘back door’ for future exploitation?  With millions of transistors and other devices on a single chip, and space for thousands/millions of lines of built-in programming, how can such vulnerabilities be completely tested for prior to deployment of each batch of chips?

Implications for Preppers

We’re not saying don’t fly on modern planes.  And we’re not saying turn off every computer controlled device in your home, office, car, retreat, wherever.

We’re simply pointing out that there are unseen and unthought of risks and vulnerabilities in our lives that could suddenly create major havoc in our world as we currently know and enjoy it.  A Y2K bug type scenario might be unleashed upon us by a foreign power, and with even a small part of our computer controlled lives destroyed, our entire lives could be destroyed.  Kill the computers that manage our water system.  Or the computers that manage oil refineries and pipelines.  Or the computers that run the electricity grid.

What would you do if water no longer appeared by magic every time you turned on a tap or flushed a toilet?  What would food processors do without water, too?

If we lost the ability to refine and transport bulk oil/gas products, how would you get to work each day?  No cars, no buses.  If your business has to close down, how will that impact other businesses that rely on its products/services (assuming they haven’t already had to close down too)?  And how would food get to the supermarket without trucks to transport it there?  Even if it got there, how would you go to the supermarket to get the food and bring it home?  And all those oil and gas-fired power stations?  Take those away and our electricity supply starts to crash, even without needing to infect computer control systems for the electricity grid.

Modern society is an example of the old rhyme ‘For want of a nail, a kingdom was lost’.  With all the layers of interlocking dependencies that go into every part of our lives, if a single one of those dependencies should fail, the whole lot might fail.

There’s nothing we can individually do about this. But we can, individually and in our families and communities, prepare for the consequences of a failure.

May 282012
 

One of a series of maps from the CDC showing the incidence of various types of ticks.

In a Level 2/3 situation, the omnipresence of modern medical care that we have come to rely upon will be much less available.  We will be well advised to plan our lives so there will be less need to seek medical help.

One issue to consider when choosing the location for our retreat is the presence of any insect-borne diseases, any particularly dangerous animals, and other such issues.  This involves not just looking at challenges that presently exist, but also extrapolating further to new challenges that might appear.

For example, the Africanized or ‘killer’ bees that are spreading northwards up from Mexico.  It is far from clear at what point these bees will stop their advance.

Or the spread of ticks carrying various diseases, Lyme disease being the best known but far from the only such disease, some of which can be fatal.  Here’s a recent article about the increasing amount of the country being affected by such things, and here’s a useful map.

At the risk of inviting despair, here’s a series of maps showing the spread of various types of ticks and information on the diseases they can carry.  It would seem that nowhere is safe from some type of tick and disease.

As for other types of animal threats, it is hard to know if they will become more prevalent and severe, or less so, in a Level 2/3 situation.  On the one hand, there may be a reduction in human type impacts on such creatures, allowing them to thrive and increase in numbers.  On the other hand, there could be an increase in human impacts if they are the type of creature that people would choose to hunt for food – we’re just guessing that not everyone will strictly observe the current seasonal restrictions on when, where, and how game can be killed!

We’re also going to guess that not everyone will be wearing bright orange safety jackets in the woods and we’d suggest that the woods could become relatively dangerous places to be in, due to over-eager hunters shooting at anything that moves.

May 272012
 

The Iranian Flag

The war drums are beating ever louder in prelude to a possible war with Iran.  What will this mean for us back in the US?

Although it might seem at odds with our current President’s world-view and values, it is hard to overlook the increasing amount of news stories that are being released or strategically leaked, all of which seem to indicate that we may be initiating war with Iran shortly.

For our part, we don’t understand how it is for year after year after year Iran has so successfully played us for the fools that, alas, our State Department so often truly is on the world stage, while at the same time, inexorably getting closer and closer to having a credible arsenal of nuclear weapons, and research facilities so hardened and so far underground as to be impregnable to anything we might bring to bear.

It is a bit like blackberry bushes in spring.  You can cut them back when they first start to spring up, this being an easy simple process that takes but a few minutes.  But if you delay, each extra day you do nothing makes the eventual task so much harder when you subsequently reach your wife finally insists you attempt to recover your yard and garden from now dense infestations of blackberry bushes.  Iran is getting stronger and more resilient with every passing day.

It is hard to know what Iran’s capabilities are at present.  They’ve been lying to everyone for years, and most countries (many of which would prefer to see Iran succeed than the US) and UN organizations have been happy to accept the lies at face value rather than to confront the ugly and deepening reality of Iran’s nuclear capabilities.

Just because we’re being told various stories, some contradictory, about the lack of threat Iran currently poses does not mean this is so.  It is interesting to contrast all the publicity surrounding Iran’s nuclear program with the silence with which other countries have developed nuclear weapons.  It seems other countries successfully completed nuclear weapons programs in less time and with less fuss or commitment (for example South Africa, India, Pakistan, North Korea, even Israel).  If these other countries can make nuclear weapons, and can secure support from more advanced nations in their efforts, why not Iran, too?

Until now, our various misadventures in the Middle East have been against countries with no nuclear weaponry, and no ability to project power much beyond their own borders.  And so while we’ve been able to swamp them with our high-tech weaponry and resources, they’ve not been able to fight back, and most of all, they’ve not been able to bring the battle back home to us.

A Quick Backgrounder on Iran

Those issues do not apply quite so directly with Iran.  Iran is the 18th largest country in the world (in terms of its landmass size – slightly smaller than Alaska), and is overwhelmingly Muslim (89% Shia, 9% Sunni).

Iran – formerly known as Persia until 1935, has a population of 79 million.  Since its revolution in 1979, it has a complicated government – think of it perhaps as having way too many checks and balances.  It has a steadily growing albeit somewhat troubled economy – largely oil based – but not much wealth, and an official unemployment rate of at least 15%.

Iran produces 4.3 million barrels of oil a day.  Iraq, in comparison, produces 2.6 million and Kuwait produces 2.5 million.  It is the fourth largest oil producer in the world – Saudi Arabia produces 10.5 million, Russia 10.3 million and the US 9.7 million.

Iran has the world’s second largest proven natural gas reserves, and the world’s fourth largest proven oil reserves.

In part because of its oil production and exports, Iran has a massive positive balance of payments and steadily increasing reserves of gold and foreign exchange – $79 billion in 2010, rising to $110 billion in 2011.

The Iranian Military

Iran has a strong military, with 20 million males 18 – 49 fit for military service (and, theoretically, another 19 million women).  Men are required to spend 18 months of military service, and each year, another 715,000 males reach the age of military service.

Leading US generals have described the Iranian military as the strongest in the Middle East.  However, they probably were not talking about its Air Force, which is made up largely of older planes (many of them from the US) and only a few of which seem to be airworthy.

But Iran does have a moderately capable navy, and indeed, in the confined waters of the Persian Gulf, and the Straits of Hormuz in particular, their ships could fire their anti-ship missiles at US naval targets without leaving port.  The ability of US aircraft carriers to withstand any type of missile attack has never been tested in real life, and there have to be real concerns about their survivability in the event of a massed attack of multiple missiles launched for a simultaneous time on target strike.

As well as surface ships, Iran also has three Russian Kilo class submarines.  These are diesel-powered, but are typically quieter than most nuclear powered submarines when operating on their batteries.

One wonders if the US military command are willing to risk the loss of one, two, or more of their 11 aircraft carriers, particularly when you consider that each aircraft carrier has almost 6,000 personnel on board.  While aircraft carriers are great for effective force projection, their vulnerability is a matter of concerned debate, and the US has been fortunate not to have deployed them – so far – against an enemy with credible anti-ship missile capabilities.

If the US can not use its carriers, and with difficult relations with countries that border Iran (ie Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq – not even Iraq seems to like us much even more) and an always complex relationship between Saudi Arabia and both Iran and the US, the US would not have a lot of places for forward bases to support any operation.  Turkey is another uncertain ally, and Israel – the country with apparently the greatest vested interest – is too far away for practical support purposes, and would require over-flight permission from Jordan and Iraq or Saudi Arabia.

That’s not to say the US couldn’t prevail.  It would almost certainly follow the standard pattern of an initial high intensity surprise attack with cruise missiles to disable as much of Iran’s air defenses as possible, supplemented in this case by an attack on naval targets too.  Once it had control of the skies, it could have ground attack aircraft patrolling the country with impunity, and taking out targets as and when they wished.

But how it could move from there to a ground war is less clear.  Where would it pre-stage 100,000 or more troops, and all the tanks, trucks, and other equipment needed to occupy the ground?

It is helpful to keep in mind that in the war with Iraq, the US was facing a country with less than half as many people and only one quarter the land mass.  In the war with Afghanistan, the US was (is?) facing a country with one third the land mass and 40% the population.  Iran is very much larger in every respect.

On the other hand, the chances are that the Iranian army would be no more effective than the Iraqi army was when faced with the modern capabilities of US forces.

We’re not saying a war with Iran is not winnable at all.  It almost certainly would be, inasmuch as you can consider our war with Iraq was a ‘success’ and the same with our war against Afghanistan.  We could overwhelm the country’s armed forces, for sure, but what about the peace that follows?  That is the bit we’re not quite so good at optimizing!

While there are some opposition elements in Iran, it is hard to see any truly pro-western factions rather than merely different elements but still Muslim oriented and primarily anti-western.  It is appropriate to remember that the 1979 revolution was a very popular uprising by the country as a whole against the US supported previous regime; there is little evidence of any broad base of opposition to the present regime and even less evidence of any pro-western sentiment among the opposition forces that might be present.

Although we probably could win a war with Iran, we do make the point that there may be more damage inflicted on US forces than we’ve experienced in other recent conflicts, and the logistics of supporting an Iranian conflict look to be more complex than supporting the wars with Iraq and Afghanistan.  (The US has lost 2000 people in the Afghan conflict so far, and 4500 in Iraq).

Anyway, these issues are secondary to the main topic of this article.  The implications of a war with Iran for us, hopefully safely located back in the Continental US.

Other than a possible increase in ‘one off’ type terrorist attacks that might be regrettable but hardly life changing for most of us, we see three areas of risk to LAWKI.

Risk 1 :  Nuclear Attack

We’re going to go out on a limb here and say that we’d be totally unsurprised to learn that Iran already has nuclear weapons.  It probably hasn’t tested them yet, but we’re going to say that, other than tightening down the last few screws in the cover and charging up the batteries, Iran is probably in possession of 98% completed nuclear weapons.

This report suggests Iran sort of has enough materials for five weapons already.  Let’s take that number and instead of ‘could build five weapons in the future’ change it to ‘has five weapons now’, just for the sake of this discussion.

The bigger issue, as we see it, is one of delivery.  How would Iran get nuclear weapons to the US?

It seems that its longest range missiles currently can reach no further than 2,000 miles.  So we’re safe, right?  The shortest distance from Iran to the US is 6,000 miles.

Wrong.  Go play on Google Earth and see what places are within 2000 miles of the US.  For example, Washington DC is less than 2,000 miles from the closest parts of Venezuela, and with a dying President there who hates the US, is it impossible to foresee a situation where he agrees to go out in a splash of shared glory with Iran?  The two countries are becoming increasingly friendly and cooperating on a range of different projects.

Alternatively, what’s to stop Iran from forward positioning missiles on freighters and simply sailing the ship to within 2,000 miles of a US coast.  There’s no shortage of tempting targets on either coast.

One other possibility is to smuggle the weapons into the country in shipping containers, or, for that matter, as airfreight cargo in an airfreight LD-3 container.  Isn’t this the ultimate ‘cruise missile’ – a civilian passenger or freight jet, flying on a regular approved flight plan.

So maybe Iran couldn’t conveniently use traditional intercontinental ballistic missiles to deliver its warheads.  But it has plenty of other choices.

How/Where to Target Five Missiles/Bombs

What would a country do as part of a ‘suicide’ mission to detonate five nuclear weapons on US soil?  Where would it send the missiles?

A good answer to that question can be seen from the actions of the 9/11 attackers.  While we don’t know if the urgent landing of all airborne planes forestalled other pending attacks (probably not, but who knows for sure) what we do know is that with four ‘weapons’ (ie planes) the terrorists decided to send two to New York and two to Washington DC.

It is almost certain that these two cities would be the prime targets of a nuclear attack, too.  And while one nuclear explosion above DC and Manhattan would be more than sufficient, we’d expect that due to the unreliability of both the weapons and the missiles taking them to their targets, the attacking force would at least ‘double up’ and send two to each target, which would leave a single ‘bonus’ fifth weapon.  That too could be sent to NY or DC, but it might perhaps instead be sent as a ‘bonus’ to a third target; most likely to be another major US city chosen for its iconic status and economic impact rather than for any strategic/military value.

An attack on the US would not be designed to win the war.  It would be designed to inflict maximum civilian and economic damage in relation.

Risk 2 :  EMP

This is the risk that really has us worried.  Instead of sending five bombs to DC and NY, which while having a devastating impact on these two population centers, would have little impact on the rest of the country; why not just send one for a high altitude airburst with an EMP that will destroy much of the entire nation’s electronic and electrical infrastructure.

Indeed, with five weapons, why not detonate one, then a second one two days later so as to take out much of the backup systems that may be held in protective storage, then a third one two weeks later to zero out any remaining backed up backups, leaving two more for ‘bonus’ attacks in the future.  Or perhaps, the two spares to Europe to take out the rest of the western world at the same time.  Imagine that :  No US and no EU – two continents instantly reduced to a non-mechanized farming level of subsistence.

With all due respect to New York and DC, and the people living there, the country would survive their loss.  But a staged series of EMP attacks?  That would plunge all of us back to the near-stone age.

Many of us have prepared for some degree of EMP response, although none of us really know how protective our ‘do it yourself’ Faraday cages may be, and even if we did survive the first round and start deploying our backed up equipment, what happens when the second EMP takes out our backups?

This, we feel, is the greatest vulnerability of all – a second EMP strike several days after the first.  It is hardly an innovative idea.  World War 2 saw the use of delayed fuse bombs, with the concept being that the first wave of explosions would destroy buildings, and the delayed explosions would then take out the responders, leaving the area vulnerable to a future bombing attack, due to having killed the firemen, paramedics, etc, and having destroyed their vehicles.  There is every reason to believe that any nation planning to launch one EMP device would choose to launch others subsequently to take out whatever level of backup equipment was being taken out of protective storage and deployed.

We can not overstate the danger of EMP attacks.  They are ‘low tech’ and easy for an attacking nation to stage (assuming it is nuclear capable), and at present our country is massively vulnerable to such an attack.  Using nuclear weapons merely as high explosive devices these days is old-fashioned and no longer the best use of the weapons.  Much better to reprogram their missile delivery systems to activate them at high altitude for maximum EMP effect with a 1,000 mile or greater radius, rather than at relatively low altitude for a blast with a lethality radius of ‘only’ five or so miles.

Risk 3 :  Cyber Attack

Iran is one of five nations known to be developing a ‘cyber army’ – soldiers who do battle not with a gun and bullets, but with a computer mouse and datalink.

This is perhaps only fair, being as how Iran has been on the receiving end of a shadowy cyber-attack itself – the Stuxnet virus intended to destroy its centrifuges that are used to separate Uranium 235 from the regular mix of primarily Uranium 238.

Our nation’s increasingly fragile infrastructure is largely computer controlled.  Real people aren’t standing watch in power stations, pumping stations, distribution points, and so on, with their eyes locked on a battery of gauges and dials, and their hands ready to spin control levers in response to changing indications on the readouts.  Indeed, even if that were the case, the chances are the readouts are digital rather than analog – that is, they have gone through microprocessors prior to appearing on displays, and the controls too are probably ‘fly by wire’ type controls that would just control a computer rather than be physically linked to huge big valves and switches and things.

Anything that harms the control computers can destroy the structures that are being controlled.  It is all too easy to mis-direct control system computers so that they send the wrong instructions to the equipment they are controlling, destroying the equipment in the process (this is, simplistically, one of the things the Stuxnet virus did to Iran).  It is possible to reprogram the logic of the controllers, causing nuclear power stations to melt down, for example.  To overload transformers in the national grid.  To allow turbines to overspeed and break in our hydro-electric power stations.  To over-pressure and rupture our gas and oil pumping lines (or just to open the wrong valves and pump oil or gas into sensitive areas).  To open up floodgates on dams, sending tidal waves of water downstream (and also then emptying the dams of the water needed for regions and their agriculture and people to survive).

Truly, there is no limit to the mischief one can create.

Furthermore, our infrastructure is also increasingly networked and linked up through public internet channels.  Anyone who believes that utility companies and government departments have adequately secured their computer systems to make them invulnerable to cyber-attack needs to do some internet surfing to disabuse themselves of such notions.

For example, look at the case of Gary McKinnon, the eccentric English guy and Asperger’s victim who allegedly penetrated to the highest level of NASA and DOD computer networks.  If one single amateur UFOlogist (ie McKinnon) can gain access to the tightest security computer networks and do damage to them inadvertently, what can military teams of dedicated opponents do?

A cyber attack could be almost as damaging as an EMP in terms of massive widespread disruption to our support systems and infrastructure.  It could not just knock out our power grid and our oil and gas pipelines, but it could also damage their physical structures such as to take years to repair.

Best of all (from Iran’s perspective) the attacking nation doesn’t need any nuclear weapons or ballistic missiles.  It just needs a regular computer and a connection to the internet.  Indeed, it is possible to disguise the location where the attack originated from – Iran (or any other country with national hacking capabilities) could destroy our nation’s economy and we might never even know for sure it was Iran who did it.

Summary

Neither Iraq nor Afghanistan had nuclear weapons, and neither did they have much in the way of cyber capabilities.

On the other hand, Iran may already have nuclear weapons, and definitely has cyber warfare capabilities.  It also has an extremist leadership who views not just our armed forces and our politicians as their enemies, but who views the entire American value system and way of life as an evil to be exterminated and replaced by their Muslim ideologies.  We are all the enemies of these people, whether we are soldiers or not.

It seems likely that if Iran’s leadership felt its future was being credibly threatened, they’d have no hesitation at all in inflicting the maximum amount of damage on the US civilian population and economy.  They wouldn’t even care if this resulted in us abandoning our attack on Iran or not; all that would matter is that they managed to inflict maximum damage on the US.

In our long time stand-off with Russia/the former Soviet Union, the doctrine of ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’ worked, because neither we nor the Soviets wanted to risk the certain destruction of our own world as a cost of destroying the other country.  We both feared MAD.

But Iran shows no fear of the concept of MAD.  It almost seems to welcome it.

Iran may or may not be able to mount a nuclear attack or to detonate an EMP device in the US, but it does seem to already have capacity to bring cyber-attacks against who knows what broad range of vulnerable computer control systems across the nation, disabling our supply lines and support systems as a result.

A war with Iran is a high-risk venture, accordingly – not just to our military, but to ourselves back home, too.

May 262012
 

Water is life, particularly after a Level 2/3 event.

Finding the ideal retreat location is a bit like finding the ideal spouse.  Almost impossible.

There are many different factors to consider in evaluating different retreat locations, including for most of us the key issue of affordability (although when it comes to Level 3 scenarios, it could be argued that a bad retreat location is only slightly better than no retreat location at all).

How to juggle the many different factors for a ‘perfect’ retreat (or, better to say, a ‘least imperfect’ one) involves trying to balance out the different issues, and accordingly different priorities to each issue.  For example, it may be helpful to be close to a railroad track (our guess is that in a Level 3 scenario, trains will start long distance freight and passenger service long before regular road vehicles).  But would you rather be close to a rail line or a river – both may offer transportation options, and a river has another possibly vital plus point too.

Which brings us to the content of this article.  The essential importance of a water supply at your retreat location.

Many Different Uses of Water

Now you probably already know that you need water, right?  You know, that thing about dehydration being fatal after three days with no water, and the rule of thumb about allowing a gallon of water a day for essential minimal uses.  But that’s not the end of the story.  It is barely the beginning of the story.

For a Level 3 scenario, you don’t just need a gallon of water a day – you might potentially need 1,000 gallons a day (to water crops and feed animals) or even more (to run a micro-hydro power station), as well as the modest quantity for yourself.

Let’s think about all the ways that water can help you :

Drinking water – Must be free of contamination, only needed in low quantities

Other Household water – For cooking/washing/flushing type purposes – of successively lower quality

Agricultural water – Some bio-contamination fine, but free of chemicals and poisons, needed in potentially large quantities

Power – Hydro-electric power requires freely flowing water running down a grade, watermills can work on lower flows and lesser drops; needs huge quantities of water

Food – Lakes, rivers and streams could be sources of fish, a more ambitious project is to consider aquaculture

Transportation – Some rivers and lakes are navigable, and water transport is energy-efficient (particularly sail powered)

Security – A water obstacle won’t necessarily make it impossible for attackers to reach you, but it will slow them down and make them more vulnerable while crossing it

Fire-fighting – If you should have a fire, you’ll need a plentiful supply of water to fight it

Money – Maybe you can sell water to others

Community – See our last point, below.  Becoming the community water source helps the community coalesce.

So water is a vital resource, and easy access to large amounts of it – large amounts that don’t require major energy costs to retrieve – is a very important part of choosing your retreat location.

You need to think beyond the simple ‘can I get my gallon of water a day’ concept and consider issues that might require tens of thousands of gallons of water a day, such as the ‘bonus’ of being able to use a water source for hydro-electric power generation.

A further bonus is the potential for catching fish and providing food.  With so many people talking about ‘I’ll go out and hunt deer’, we wonder just how scarce wild game may become; but if you have access to a reasonably private lake or river, maybe your fish supply will not be so threatened.  Maybe.

Many Different Sources of Water

So where can you get water from?  Many different places is the happy answer.

Rainwater – an unreliable seasonal source, better in some areas than others, possibly sufficient for basic household needs.  Almost always of very high quality.  Requires potentially extensive (and therefore expensive) storage capacity so as to keep it available for use in dry months.

Free-flowing springs – These are wonderful but rare.  If you can come up with a spring/well where the water comes out of the ground ‘all by itself’ you are extremely blessed.  Need to check the water quality, and confirm the reliability of the spring flow year-round, and from one year to the next to the next.  Assuming reliable and adequate flow rates, no need for storage.

Wells – These can be prodigious sources of water, but require energy to lift the water up from the level it is found in the well.  We discuss this in our article The Energy Cost of Pumping Water from a Well.  More likely to be reasonably pure, but need occasional testing.  Assuming reliable and adequate flow rates, no need for storage.

Rivers and streams – Possibly of varying reliability.  May freeze over in the winter and dry up in the summer.  Will probably require energy expenditure to transfer water from river/stream to retreat.  Of uncertain purity, and need ongoing testing to keep on top of changes in the water quality.  Assuming the water is available year round, no need for storage.

Restrictions on Water Use

The more arid the state, the greater the legislative focus on the ‘ownership’ of water.  And also the ‘greener’ the state (ie the more eco-focused) again the greater the focus on leaving water flows undisturbed.  The welfare of fish is considered more important than the welfare of the state’s citizens.

Restrictions may exist at a state-wide level or at a county level – possibly even at a city level.  Bearing in mind our strong suggestion that everything you do be fully compliant with all current laws, you need to be aware of possible restrictions on your use of water that flows through or near to your property.

City Water Supply

We hopefully don’t need to tell you this, but if you are at a location which provides city water, you should not base your retreat planning on the assumption that the city water supply will continue uninterrupted WTSHTF.

While there is a temptation to using the very inexpensive city water prior to a Level 2/3 event, we recommend you use your own water supply right from when you set up your retreat.  This will give you a chance to identify any problems and issues, and will give you the opportunity to resolve them while you still have all the wonderful resources of modern civilization at hand.

If you just sink a well then leave it, untouched, for years, while happily using the city water instead, you have no way of knowing if something has happened to the pump or maybe the water table has lowered and the well is no longer able to supply you with water.  It is probably better to use your well and pump on a regular basis than to leave it unused and have parts dry out or rust up or whatever else.

Selling Water – Building a Community

You should get a feeling for how other people in your general area get their water.  And think it through to ‘could they continue to get water from this source WTSHTF’.  If everyone has wells, the question becomes ‘Do they have storage tanks, and do they have some way of powering their pump’.

If you live a long way from your nearest neighbor, and if there are some hundred feet of altitude separating you from your neighbors too (especially if you are lower) then maybe you would not be a convenient source of water, especially if there was a good river running by closer to them.  But if water is in short supply, and if you have an abundant source of it, then maybe you can make money by selling water to your neighbors.

We’d suggest you not be greedy in such a case.  You obviously need to cover your energy costs, and the time/hassle factor.  Beyond that, though, being able to help your local community provides a common tie to unite you all – the need to protect your water source from outsiders.  That’s an obvious benefit to you, as is anything that helps a community work together and to establish their self-sufficiency.

How should you be paid for the water you sell?  That’s an entirely different topic, and it depends on the likelihood of the dollar staying as the currency of the country when life returns back to something close to normal.  It also depends on what you most need and what the people buying the water from you have the most of.

If you are using diesel to drive a generator to power the water pump, maybe you say ‘500 gallons of water for one gallon of diesel’.  That sounds very fair, but with your underlying ‘cost’ of diesel to pump the water being more like one gallon of diesel for 7,000 gallons of water, you’ve not only covered the cost of the water, but more than 7 of the 8 pints of diesel you received in exchange can be used for powering other things for other purposes, too.

If you become the community water supply, you could also become the community trading post for other things too – you could even allow (encourage) your neighbors to set up stalls selling and trading the foodstuffs and other items they have for sale in exchange for things they need.  It makes you a community leader, and helps encourage the community to in turn protect and assist you.

May 232012
 

The concrete block in the upper image is shown again in the lower image, totally destroyed after only two .308 rounds hit it. See below for linked article.

There are two distinctive things about your retreat that sets it aside from most normal houses.

Firstly, it is possible it may be uninhabited for months at a time when life is proceeding happily as normal.  It may also be in an out-of-the-way location.  A very tempting target for burglars.

Secondly, when things do all go to hell in a handbasket, and you are living there during a Level 2 or 3 situation, you’ll need to have a much more robust defense against attackers than just a lock and safety chain on your front door and catches on your windows.

Let’s discuss these issues.

No-one Home Security Requirements

There’s nothing a burglar or a vandal likes better than to find an empty house in an out-of-the-way location.

With no neighbors or passing cars to observe them, they can take their time breaking into the place and doing whatever they wish to do.  Indeed, the longer it obviously is since someone was last there, the more inviting the place becomes to burglars and others with evil intent – once inside, they might even decide to stay overnight or longer, feeling no pressure at all about the possible return at any moment of the owner.

Even if they can’t manage to gain entry to a locked retreat, they’ll probably smash a bunch of windows in their frustrated efforts to get in, thereby opening the interior up to the outside weather and to wildlife – creatures that might do as much damage as people.

Although you might say – and be correct to say – that in reality, there are very few structures that can’t be opened by a group of motivated determined skilled burglars with time on their hands, the chances are that uninvited visitors to your unattended retreat will be more likely to be just casual passers-by seeking easy targets of opportunity.  They won’t have safe-cracking type tools with them, and they’ll probably not have skilled locksmiths with them either.  If some work with a crowbar and axe won’t get them through the doors/windows (or exterior walls) they’ll probably give up and move on to the next tempting target instead.

Nonetheless, it would be excellent if there were a way to get a remotely monitorable alarm system at your retreat, so that if the alarm is triggered, you can then look at a real-time video feed and decide if it is a benign passing deer, or a not so benign would-be intruder.  If the latter, you can maybe call the local county sheriff and have them send someone out.

This also assumes you have not done anything to suggest your retreat is of unusual interest or has anything of value inside.  We’d suggest its exterior be nondescript and plain rather than flashy and fancy.

You need to appreciate that most normal home construction is designed to prevent honest people from mistakenly entering the wrong house, uninvited.  It won’t do any good at all to a burglar armed with an axe and a crowbar.  The fancy lock on your door can stay locked – the burglar will just remove the door from its jam!  And needless to say, any areas of glass are almost certainly liable to be destroyed by a few good blows from something heavy like an axe.

You can’t build your retreat using normal construction methods and make it truly burglar proof.  If you buy an existing dwelling, you almost have to consider tearing it down and rebuilding from scratch – or, alternatively, adding a new exterior protective layer all the way around.

Level 2/3 Scenario Defense

The other situation is WTSHTF and you need to bug out to your retreat.

Sooner or later, you will have an armed group of attackers keen to separate you from your food and other goodies.  They might ask you politely first, but if you refuse – as you certainly should – their next move will be not nearly so polite.

Figure on being found, sooner or later (see our article about the inevitability of your hidden retreat being found).  Now, what happens after you’ve refused the request/demand for you to hand over all your food (and everything else of value or use)?  It is hard to imagine these people will just walk away empty-handed.

They’ll either lay siege and try to starve you out, or in the more likely event they’re not so patient, they’ll actively try to force your surrender and/or attempt to force their way in.

Yup, there’s going to be some shooting, isn’t there.  And, for your part of the shooting, you have two requirements.  The first is to be able to be protected from incoming fire, and the second is to be able to shoot back from advantageous positions of relative safety.

Now, just as normal home construction makes it easy for bad guys to break in, you’ll probably be unsurprised to learn that normal home construction does not normally consider making a residence’s exterior walls bullet proof.

Let’s understand just how powerful rifle rounds actually are.

Penetrating Capabilities of Rifle Rounds

Although pistol and shotgun rounds can also be a problem, your real threat is from rifles.  Not so much from ‘special’ rifles and not even from special bullets either.  Just from regular standard hunting/sporting rifles, chambered in any of the very common calibers, including .30-06 and .308 and to a lesser extent, even the .223 round as well.

A regular 5.56/.223 round can penetrate through 12 sheets of pine (see this site).  Metal covered doors are so useless that even a tiny pocket pistol can shoot through them (see this report).  Rifle rounds can also go through 15″ of phone book pages (see here).  Here’s a web page that shows a 7.62/.308 round going through 8.5″ of tree trunk then on through sort of 6.5″ of phone book and still having energy after having traveled through that.  Another person reports shooting his 8mm Mauser through 16″ telephone poles.

Here is an interesting study on many different exterior wall surfaces by many different rifle rounds.  Most rifle rounds penetrated most materials, and those that didn’t would generally cause major damage to the exterior cladding to make it more susceptible to penetration if a second round landed in the same place.

Here are two excellent pages (one two) showing the results of shooting at CMU blocks (concrete masonry units) with a range of rifle and pistol rounds.  Read the descriptions and look at the linked pictures (the picture at the top of this article was formed from a ‘before’ and ‘after’ picture on those pages).  These are vivid indicators of how weak filled concrete blocks will be when confronted with rifle fire.

The bottom line is simply this – Rifle rounds will go through pretty much any amount of wood and/or plenty of concrete and still be dangerous to you inside.

Bullet Resistant vs Bullet Proof

So you need to upgrade your exterior walls to make them somewhere between bullet resistant and bullet proof.

What is the difference?  There is an important difference in these terms.  A bullet resistant barrier will not allow a single round to penetrate, and neither will it allow for ‘spalling’ (ie bits flying off the inside of the barrier) to occur.  But, if you fire several rounds all in the one spot (or within a reasonably close distance of each other) the barrier will successively weaken and after sufficient hits, it will give way in that area.  The concrete block shown at the top can be considered bullet resistant.

A bullet proof barrier on the other hand can calmly accept incoming fire all day in the one position and not weaken at all.  The backstop of the gun range you train at is bullet proof.

In practical terms (because bullet proofing is impressively expensive), you’ll probably settle for some type of bullet resistant exterior wall, and ideally one that can be repaired and restored back to 100% integrity at the end of an encounter.  Maybe some of the obvious ‘bullet magnet’ points will be given extra strengthening, but for the rest, you’ll hope that the bad guys give up after some hundreds/thousands of rounds, most of which randomly distribute themselves fairly evenly around your exterior walls.

Bullet magnet points would be anything that looks vulnerable/weak/openable, and anything that you’ll be shooting from.

Your choice of materials will be influenced to an extent by your budget and just exactly how thick you want your walls to be.  We will discuss building construction materials in other articles.

Something to consider is whether you want your retreat to have a sturdy impregnable fortress look to it, or if you’d prefer it to be a ‘stealth’ secure location.  Opinions differ as to which is the better strategy.

An obviously strong resilient fortress might discourage casual looters from mounting an attack.  On the other hand, it might also signal ‘Hey, we’re well prepared here, we probably have lots of goodies inside’.  And a fortress type structure might encourage a stealth/sneak attack rather than an open/overt attack (on this point, we suspect most attacks will be semi-stealthy anyway).

There is no way of knowing what your attackers might think or how they will behave.  In fact, we suggest it would be foolish to try to come up with the exact set of thoughts and actions an attacker would have – see our article on not being able to predict how people will behave WTSHTF.  Instead, you should plan and prepare for all types of behaviors, both sensible and stupid.

Windows

We suggest your retreat have as few windows as possible.  They are a security risk and also increase your need to heat your building in winter and cool it in summer due to probably having less insulating properties than the rest of your exterior walls.

You will want some, because they will do double duty as places for you to observe the outside and to shoot from.  These should be high up and small.

Being high up means that people from the outside, shooting in, will have to angle their shots upwards.  Any rounds that penetrate will tend to go up towards the ceiling and beyond rather than travel through the house, hitting anyone in its path.

Being high up also makes it harder for someone to come along and look in, break in, and climb in.

Being small will make it harder for people to climb in the window, and it will slow them down and make them vulnerable while they are climbing in.

It is also easier to protect a small window area and to provide back-up levels of resistance so that if (when) the glass is shot out, there is something else – maybe a hardened steel plate – to protect the building interior.

The Risk of Fire

The most dangerous thing that worries a sailor?  Fire.  That might sound ridiculous when you’re on a boat surrounded by water, but it is for sure the truth.  More boats have been lost as a result of fire that from any other cause (assuming moderately competent seamanship).

The same is true of your retreat.  It goes without saying that the friendly local fire brigade will almost certainly not be functioning as normal in a Level 2/3 scenario.  If you have a fire, you’ll have to control it yourself.

Now that will be stressful enough in the normal course of events, but what if the fire was deliberately caused by people who are attacking you and laying siege to your retreat?  If they’ve set fire to your building exterior, and maybe its roof, and possibly managed to get some Molotov cocktails in through windows as well, and now they’re waiting to pick you off as you rush out of the burning building, all of a sudden your retreat is not a safety structure for you, it has become a death trap instead.

Okay, some people might design a bolt hole/cellar they can retreat to, and others might have a secret tunnel/exit from their retreat.  But that’s not really the point, is it.  Maybe you escape, but you’ve left behind everything you owned and possessed – you’re no longer one of the well prepared survivors, you’re now one of the homeless horde of desperate predators.

You need to ensure the exterior of your dwelling is impervious to fire.  An accidental fire can be started from any one of way too many causes – even natural ‘Acts of God’ like lightning strikes.

A deliberate fire might be started from one of two main sources – either as a result of someone shooting incendiary or tracer type rounds into your structure, or as a result of someone using Molotov cocktail type weapons to initiate the fire.  Both your roof and your exterior walls are vulnerable, and if your windows can’t be kept securely shut, the rooms they open into are also vulnerable.

So – no wood on the exterior of your building, right?  Brick, metal, stone – all these are good.  Concrete is moderate.

If using metal (and you probably won’t be) note that it would conduct any intense heat on the outside to the inside, so if you had wooden framing up against a steel exterior wall, the wood framing would be at risk.

Generally however, the type of Molotov cocktail type fire starting device that would likely be used won’t burn for an extended time or intensely.  If it can get something else started burning, it has done its job; if it can’t, then the pint or quart of fire starter contained within it will burn quickly and then burn out.

To protect against this type of attack, you also must make sure there is nothing that could burn close to the exterior walls on the outside, either.

Summary

The chances are that at some point, you will have burglars try to break into your retreat, and at some point, you will have people shooting at you while you are in your retreat.

The design considerations to protect you against burglary also get you half-way towards protection against violent assault.

You need a structure that is burglar proof, bullet-proof (or, at the very least, repairably bullet resistant) and also fireproof.

This is more difficult than you might think.  Normal rifle bullets will penetrate more than 12″ of wood and still be lethal the other side, and three or four rounds landing on a typical 8″ x 8″ x 16″ concrete block (even if the hollow spaces have been filled with concrete) will demolish the block completely.

Difficult – yes.  Impossible – no.  And, also, essential for the security of your retreat.

May 232012
 

Even if your house is as visually obscured as this one (unlikely) other things will still give it away.

Some preppers base the security of their retreat on hiding it so that it won’t be found.

They glow with pride about how carefully they’ve chosen their retreat location, and its remoteness from main roads and likely off-road flows of people too.  They mutter about ‘OPSEC’ meaningfully, and talk about keeping an ultra-low profile, and won’t even tell you what state it is located in.

This is all good stuff and great to talk about, but it won’t keep you hidden.

We don’t mean to discourage any of these things, but we do mean to alert you to the fact that it is not possible to keep your retreat 100% hidden, all the time, from everyone.  Maybe careful measures will extend the time it takes for the first adversary to stumble across your retreat, but maybe also your location will be discovered by chance rather than by careful searching.

Sooner or later, you will be found.  And once one person finds you, he will tell someone else, and before you know where you are, everyone in the area will know about your retreat and come visiting.

We discuss the subject of Opsec further in our article ‘The Ugly Flip-sides of Opsec‘ and in that article we recommend you should plan on a controlled release of information about your retreat, on your terms, rather than suffer an uncontrolled exposure at some unknown but certain time in the future.  You should read that article too; for the balance of this article, we focus primarily on the uncontrollable ways in which your retreat will be found.

Some Location Giveaways

Here are some types of unavoidable give-aways that will draw attention to you and your retreat.  Your concern isn’t just the people who stumble across your location by chance, it is also the people who are drawn to it due to some sort of indicator that calls attention to it, even from some distance away.

For example, what will you do for heat?  As soon as you start burning anything, you’re giving off odors that in a de-industrialized rural area will travel a long way.  One more smell in the city means nothing.  But in the countryside, anything out-of-place that doesn’t blend into the natural smells – and particularly a burning smell, something we are instinctively taught to notice and fear, will be much more prominent and will be noticed from a reasonable distance.

You’re not only giving off smells, you might be giving off smoke too, providing a visible indicator pointing to your location and visible for many miles around.

Talking about smells we instinctively react to, what will you eat?  Even if you only cook ‘low odor’ foods (rice and beans, perhaps) those odors will travel a long distance, particularly if the person smelling them has his sense of smell sharpened by hunger.

Don’t worry, we’re not going to ask what you do about bodily waste, but let’s just say there’s a reasonable chance there may be some smells associated with that, too!

What about energy?  Will you have a wind turbine?  If so, won’t that be very obvious, especially when the blades are turning, indicating that it is still operating and being maintained?

Solar cells neatly lined in rows on your roof and kept clean of debris also indicate that rather than being an abandoned old shack, your retreat is a cared for location with added value sophisticated contents.

It is true that generators can run incredibly silently, but it is also true that the outdoors itself can be very silent on occasion, making even the slightest out-of-place sound, like a generator running, draw attention to itself.

Will you ever leave your house?  In the winter, you’ll be making footprints in the snow.   Will you grow any food in the summer – any type of cultivation or other landscaping will of course be obvious.  Will you ever go hunting – the sound of each rifle shot might be heard for miles.

Will you have 24 hour blackout curtains on all the windows – heck, why not just build your retreat with no windows at all, then!  If not, your retreat will be a beacon of light at night.

The Unavoidable Paper Trail that Leads to Your Retreat

Think about everything that has happened from the moment you bought the property.  Your purchase of the property has of course been recorded in the county records.  If there were any existing buildings on the property, those are probably already part of the county records.

Maybe you bought some unimproved land and built your own retreat structure.  Did you file building permits with the county?  Do you have utility connections (visible or not)?  Maybe even internet or telephone service?  Did you have any contractors do any work on your house?  Or building inspectors visit?  Did you get mail or courier deliveries at that address?  Do you have occasional deliveries of propane or firewood or diesel fuel?  Does a septic tank service company visit to pump out your tanks?

Even if you think you’ve done everything off the record, sooner or later, the county assessors will update their database and discover the improvements on your property.  Their staff know the areas they are responsible for very well, and if they find a new driveway that didn’t formerly exist, they’ll want to know where it goes.  If they happen to see a contractor’s truck going in or out of the driveway, they’ll doubly want to know what is going on.  Or maybe they’re just doing one of their two/five/ten year revaluations of all property in the county, and someone notices from an aerial photo the presence of buildings and clear indications of agricultural improvements on a block of land they had formerly categorized as unimproved forestry land.

Have a look at, for example, this impressive site that records all details of every property in the entire state of Montana.  Chances are there’s a similar database either for your state or at least the county within your state, whether it be publicly online or not.

Other Problems

What do you say if meeting locals in the nearby town in terms of where you live?  Someone, and probably several or even many people, know that you’re out there, even if not exactly where – you’ll be the guy who lives somewhere up back of (some other place).

What about your travels to and from your retreat?  Have other people seen vehicles they don’t recognize (ie, your vehicles) in out-of-the-way places and wondered who you are and what you are doing?  Have you left tire marks, or do you have a formal driveway or some other indicator of a house on the property?

And so on and so on.  Will anyone else for 50 miles around you know about your retreat?  Unavoidably, and of course.

There are countless ways your presence will be inadvertently revealed, and your life will be a misery if you try to hide it.

The preceding examples show some things you have done or will unavoidably do that draw attention to your retreat.  But that’s not all.  Your retreat could also be found accidentally.

Accidental Discovery Too

We know that in a Level 2/3 situation, there will be an exodus of people from the cities.  Remember that for every rural dweller at present, there are about five or six city dwellers.  In theory, this suggests that the countryside might become five or six times more crowded with people than before, so this by itself increases the chances of someone stumbling across your retreat unexpectedly.

In addition to that, think of everyone you know who confidently says they’ll hunt deer or other wild game for food in a Level 2/3 situation.  Deer will rapidly become an endangered species, that’s for sure!  The woods will be crawling with hunters all eagerly looking for game to shoot, so if your retreat is anywhere close to any sort of hunting, expect an influx of hunters in your area.  Ditto for fishing.  Ditto again for any food bearing plants in the vicinity.  Maybe even for people seeking to fell trees for building materials or to burn.

There’s another potential source of disclosure too.  Google Maps, Bing, and other mapping providers are increasing the frequency of aerial mapping surveys, and the quality/detail of the images they post online.  Many counties have aerial survey maps online too.

Your retreat might be miles from anywhere, but that won’t stop a plane from snapping a beautiful aerial shot of your retreat from the air as it flies over doing a photo-reconnaissance sweep.  Your dwelling will be online for everyone, everywhere in the world, to see next time they open up Google Maps.

Okay, so this presupposes that Google Maps or any of the other online mapping services is still available in a Level 2/3 scenario – a dubious scenario, for sure.  But if your information is/was online, it is probably also printed out somewhere, and a more resourceful looter will access good old-fashioned printed county records to identify tempting targets to go hit.  If you were a looter, wouldn’t you consider an obscured out-of-the-way retreat to be more tempting than one close to three or four neighbors?

It also means that from whenever your retreat first starts to appear on these documents and online records, there will be a small but growing level of awareness of your presence, prior to WTSHTF.

Summary

Figure on being found, sooner or later.  You can not rely on remaining hidden.  Once one person finds you, expect them to share that information with more and more people.

Unfortunately, the more unusual your location, and the more creative you’ve been at obscuring it, the more ‘interesting’ it will be for people to talk about it, and the more curious they will be about exactly who you are and what you have.

By all means do all you can to extend the time until you are found, and hopefully to minimize the frequency of times you are found, but sooner or later, you will have uninvited ‘guests’ arrive unexpectedly.  You need to have a plan for what to do once the veil of obscurity is lifted from your location.

May 222012
 

It is possible to think of so many different scenarios. Which one is correct? All of them!

As preppers, we have to prepare for two sets of possible future adverse circumstances.  The first is to prepare for some sort of event that interferes with LAWKI (life as we know it), and which diminishes our quality of life to a greater or not quite so great extent, for a short or long time period.

While we all responsibly prepare for the short-term minor events (what we term Level 1 events) the really big deal is preparing for the Level 2 or 3 events (we define Level 1/2/3 events here).

But even this is relatively easy, because we sort of know what things we’ll need, and if we start from an assumption that we’ll be on our own with no external support, no external sources of water, food or energy, we can plan from that worst case but clearly understood scenario.

One of the defining points of the transition from a Level 1 event to a Level 2 or 3 event is the need to leave our normal residence in a Level 2/3 event.  And the reason for needing to do this?  There are several reasons, but the most pressing one is usually the need to ensure our own personal safety.

In a higher density city type environment, we’ll be surrounded by unprepared people who, as the Level 2 event unfolds, will quickly run out of food and out of self-control.  We anticipate lawlessness will reign, and see our safety and survival as best achieved by leaving the lawless city behind us.

But even in our Level 2/3 retreat situation, we necessarily should continue to be concerned about the actions of non-prepared people, because this is the other major adverse circumstance we will have to endure and survive in a major event – the anticipated but unknown negative actions of our fellow citizens.

The Unknown Variables Posed By Non-Preppers

Please excuse us if you don’t share a similar viewpoint about the anticipated negative actions of non-preppers in a major breakdown of society.  May we explain?

Our perception is based on what we feel to be a gritty reality – people will do whatever they have to do in order to survive, if the circumstances are extreme enough.  Sure, we believe in the innate goodness of people, the same as you do, but we also believe that when people – and their families – are starving to death; if they see a chance to get life-sustaining food, they will do anything and everything they possibly can to take that food, no matter what is required.

This sort of motivation can make honest decent people into criminals.

We also acknowledge that while most people are basically good, unfortunately some people are basically bad.  You already know this, too.  You call those types of people murderers, sex offenders, arsonists, violent offenders of all sorts, gang members, and so on.  You probably support their incarceration, whole of life sentencing, ‘three strikes and you’re out’ laws, and maybe even the death penalty.  Even the most idealistic of people can’t close their eyes to the ongoing level of violence that goes on in our society today.

The underlying reasons or demographics are irrelevant – the ugly but unavoidable fact is that some people are just plain bad.  Almost 1% of our population is in jail on any given day, and you can decide how many more percent should be with them, and you can worry about the former inmates that are now free but not reformed.

We see that good people will be forced to do bad things due to the underlying basic imperative need to survive.  But we also see that bad people will do very bad things, just because they can and want to, for fun, and because the normal law and order imperatives will be massively weakened (as is repeatedly shown, all around the world, in gratuitous rioting and looting events).

Planning For Encounters With Malefactors

So, we wonder and worry about what to expect as we shelter inside our retreats.  More to the point, we don’t just wonder/worry about what we’ll do while safely inside our retreat.  We also worry/wonder about when we’re exposed outside – doing gardening, tending to livestock, traveling to the neighbor to trade our surplus foodstuffs for his, and so on.

Some people have developed elaborate theories about the types of encounters they’ll have.  Some people support their theories by referring to what has occurred in other societies during times of social disorder.  Other people have developed very different theories, possibly supported by very different factual underpinnings.

Who is right?  What can we expect?  And, as preppers, the essential question we ask ourselves is surely – How can we prepare for such events?

Plan and Prepare For Everything

Well, there is both good and bad in what we have to suggest.  There is no one single right answer.  All answers, all predictions and prognostications, are correct, to some degree.  And all are likely to occur, in some random sequence of events, to some people, some of the time.

We must plan for all possible scenarios.  We can not restrict our planning to what we consider to be the most sensible, the most likely types of encounters.  We know everyone is different with different preferences.  That is why there are dozens of different types of baked beans to choose from in the stores.  We know everyone has different opinions – that is why horse races can occur with a spread of betting over the widely different horses.  We know some people do incredibly stupid and unpredictable things.  But if we haven’t planned for that incredibly stupid or unpredictable thing, maybe we end up being the stupid person, and a victim of the unpredicted thing.

This is the key take-away point of this article.  Don’t just plan for one type of scenario when it comes to people and their actions.  Plan for them all, from the mildest to the wildest.

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that when you’ve identified the most likely type of events, that these will be the only events you encounter.  Even if you can think exactly like some type of malefactor (we won’t ask how that is!) you can’t think like other types of malefactors.  But they are all out there, and we need to plan for the unexpected as well as the expected.

Scenarios for Encounters

Maybe some people will just lose the will to live and quietly die in back alleys.  Maybe other people will beg and plead for food, then go away, nonviolently, if refused.

Notching up a level, maybe some others will attempt to take food by force, but will give up when confronted by superior force, without any shots being fired.  Maybe some of these people, if able to take food without needing to kill to do so, would proceed to take food, but would turn away if required to kill first.

Notching up another level, maybe some people will indeed trade shots, but if they don’t quickly triumph, they will then give up and go away, looking for easier pickings/takings elsewhere.

And getting closer to extreme, maybe some people will fight to the death, having made it a point of honor to win the encounter, or die in the attempt, no matter what.

Different Tactics

Maybe some people will simply and noisily storm the front door in the mid-day sun.

Maybe others will sneakily plot and plan to surprise you when your door is open.  Maybe they’ll lie in wait for you in your fields.

Maybe some will kidnap one member of your party and try to bargain their safe return in exchange for food.  Maybe others will simply kill anyone they encounter (and, yes, maybe even eat them too!).  Note – if you don’t consider the possibility of cannibalism in your defensive strategies, you are not thinking far enough outside the box.  A yucky thought, for sure, but civilized rules will be in abeyance in an extreme scenario.

Maybe some will impatiently mount a battle, but if they don’t quickly triumph, and if they start taking casualties, go away defeated, never to return.

Maybe others, if unsuccessful in a first attack, will instead redouble their determination and come back, perhaps in greater force, and mount a more prepared planned and sustained assault.

Some people will approach from the obvious quarter.  Others will approach from unexpected places.

Varying Group Size

Maybe you’ll encounter some people on their own.  Maybe you’ll encounter small bands of 4 – 6.  Maybe you’ll encounter larger groups of 10 – 20.

Maybe you’ll think you’re defending yourself against a group of four attacking you from the front, when all of a sudden, ten more people appear from behind.

A Range of Skill Levels

Most people will have a gun – maybe a ‘good’ gun and maybe a ‘bad’ gun (you can decide what the terms ‘good’ and ‘bad’ mean in this context!).  Some will be good shots.  Some will be sniper level shots.  Others, as often as not, will be poor shots.

Some will have no knowledge of tactics or how to behave under fire.  Others will be veterans who have fought in one of our country’s many recent overseas wars, and will be skilled at such things (see our article about the rising problem of gangs and how some gangs deliberately have some members serve in the military so they have military level training and skills within their group).

Some opponents will quickly learn combat skills, and others will run away the first time a bullet zings angrily overhead.

All Sorts of Equipment and Weapons

The most common weapon you’ll encounter will be some type of rifle.  Some optimistic types might try to assault your retreat with only a pistol, and a few might bring a shotgun to the party.

But who is not to say that some people won’t have a fearsome .50 cal BMG rifle that will punch holes in just about anything it hits?  Maybe someone has developed his own explosive charges, and maybe someone else has developed a cannon or mortar?  And don’t forget the person with the Molotov cocktail, either.  Fire can be one of your most fearsome challenges.

Maybe someone from SCA has created an old-fashioned catapult, or a battering ram, or something else like that?

Maybe someone has liberated a tank or APC or other military vehicle/weapon from the local armory and can safely assault your retreat from behind the vehicle’s armor, and knock down your front door with their vehicle.

Frequency of Encounter and Group Coordination

Maybe you’ll go six months and not see anyone.  Maybe you’ll end up with a dozen encounters within as many days.

Maybe you’ll have outsmarted the entire world with your choice of ‘out of the way’ location.  Maybe one or two backwoodsman type hunters will stumble across your retreat while you’re complacently reveling in the success of your secret.

Or maybe other people will have thought the same way as you, and will be specifically going to JWR’s American Redoubt areas and looking for preppers and all their food and supplies, using the same factors to guess where you might be as you used to decide where to go.

Maybe roving gangs will meet and share stories and swap details of potential targets.  The gang you fought off last week might encourage another gang to return next week.

Maybe self-appointed ‘warlords’ will claim control of a district and everyone in it.  Maybe – really worrying – he’ll have some degree of pseudo-legal status or actual legal status, and is levying ‘taxes’ on all residents in the area.  With 100 of his troops acting as tax collectors.

The preceding sub-sections have been intended not to list all the possibilities, but to open your thinking to the range of possibilities that may occur.  Don’t stop thinking – this is not a complete list!  You should be able to come up with plenty more.

Summary

It is easy to anticipate the basic issues and challenges we’ll face in a major Level 2 or 3 event.  Take away all external support.  No more electricity or gas or internet.  No more 7-11 or supermarket.  No more Home Depot or Office Depot or any other type of depot.  That’s okay.  We can anticipate and plan and prepare for these things.

But the hardest thing to anticipate?  The actions of our non-prepped fellow citizens.  Think of as many scenarios and nightmares as you can, then drink a fifth of bourbon, and think of some more.  Any – or all – of these might come to pass (well, maybe not that one with the mutant alien zombies that you came up with half-way through your second fifth, right before you fell asleep!).

Because we can’t predict exactly which of these encounters we will face, we should plan and prepare for all of them.

We can harden our retreats to make them resistant to all but the most serious of attacks, we can design our lots to make them easy to defend and hard to attack, and – most of all – we can either join an existing community right from the get-go, or if not, we can group together with our neighbors to create a new form of law and order and mutual support and early warning system.

For More Information

If you’re specifically interested in researching potential future scenarios and how normal people might respond to them, we suggest you follow our category of articles on Communities.

Beyond that, we’ve a lot of information on all types of prepper related topics.  Please roam far and wide around our site.  Thanks for visiting.

May 222012
 

One can only guess at the primary, secondary and tertiary effects if a PHA collides with the earth.

NASA announced this week that it has recalculated the number of PHAs – ‘Potentially Hazardous Asteroids’ for those of us who aren’t rocket scientists (your humble writer included!).  Its earlier estimate of 2350 objects has been doubled, and now NASA says there are probably 4700 PHAs out there.

A PHA is an object larger than 110 yards/330 ft across, and which come dangerously close to the Earth from time to time.  This size means that they would survive passing through the Earth’s atmosphere.  Most objects (which are smaller than this) will burn harmlessly up, leaving nothing more than a brief flash in the sky for their passing, and perhaps a lump or two of space rock as is the case for most asteroids that collide with the earth at present.  But these larger sized objects can be enormously destructive.

Look up the Tunguska meteorite which exploded over Siberia in 1908.  This is believed to have been a few tens of yards (meters) across, and it is estimated to have had the explosive effect of a 10 – 15 megaton hydrogen bomb (1,000 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima).

So this count of 4700 potentially threatening objects out there starts off with objects three times larger than the Tunguska meteorite.  What would the number be if objects down to ‘only’ the size of the Tunguska meteorite were included as well?

Due to various issues, it is not possible to predict with precision if or when any of these objects might strike the earth, due to their orbits being somewhat irregular, and the objects themselves changing in mass, for example, if a journey around the sun causes frozen gases to be melted and evaporated away.  All NASA can say is these PHAs might, just possibly, hit the earth, and if one of them were to hit the earth, NASA says it would cause damage on ‘a regional or greater scale’.

There’s probably nothing we can do to protect ourselves from having an asteroid land fair and square on our head, any more than the witch could protect herself from Dorothy’s landing on her at the start of The Wizard of Oz.

However, those ‘regional or greater scale’ damages mean that the consequential effects of an asteroid threaten to be massively more than just a few squashed citizens.  And we need to think beyond the immediate effect of the meteorite’s collision with the planet to the secondary and tertiary effects.

For example, if a meteorite landed in the ocean (and 70% of the earth is water, after all) that would be the primary event, and apart from a few bucket loads of fish and any nearby ships and submarines and planes, it wouldn’t be too big a deal.

But, wait.  This would likely trigger an enormous tsunamis that would plunge much further inland than anything experienced so far, on countries all around the ‘rim’ of the body of water.  This would be a devastating secondary effect for people in the path of the tsunami.

Keep waiting.  We’re not done yet.  How about the tertiary effect on people safely removed from the tsunami impact.  We can’t even start to guess what the tertiary effects would be.  However, in most countries around the world, both the population density and the level of industrial development is greatest around the oceans.  So, for sure, there would be huge swathes of industry and agricultural production wiped out by the tsunami.  Maybe a bunch of nuclear power stations would duplicate the problems in Japan after their 2011 earthquake and tsunami, and the fallout effects from that can travel for hundreds or even thousands of miles.

There’s another thing that tends to be close to the coast as well.  Oil refineries.  As this article is being written, most of the west coast of the US is seeing their cost of gas escalating, even though the price of gas is dropping around the rest of the country, due to the unexpected closure due to fire of just one of the west coast refineries some months back.  What happens if a tsunami wipes out a bunch of refineries, and the docks/wharves/rail lines to get raw crude to the refineries and finished products from the refineries and on to their consumers?

Alternatively, what say the primary event is the meteorite landing on a populated area inland somewhere?  The secondary event is clearly the death of everyone within maybe 50 – 100 miles of the meteorite impact (depending on its size).  A large-sized event could take out New York City, Washington DC, and everything in-between.

What about a tertiary event?  Think of all the dust – much of it toxic and some of it radioactive too – that would be created by this impact.  We sort of know about the toxicity of the World Trade Center buildings after the 9/11 event; how much worse would it be after an event thousands of times larger in scale?

All that dust would have a tangible impact on the world’s climate.  Whether it precipitated a ‘nuclear winter’ or just a more vague ‘global climate change’ it would sure do something.

In all probability, an asteroid impact would be survivable by the planet as a whole (although it is thought by many that an asteroid impact massively altered the planet’s ecosystem so as to kill of the dinosaurs way back when).  But in equal probability, some of our delicately balanced and finely stretched supply and support systems would be totally fractured, causing for breakdowns in unexpected things in unexpected ways.  Read again the amazing story of how a fire in a small factory in a small town in Germany is now leading to a worldwide problem in auto manufacturing, and ask yourself how many other single points of failure with wide effect there might not be that would be impacted (perhaps even literally) if an asteroid hits the earth.

Modern life is a bit like a set of stacked dominos.  It only takes one or two well placed shoves to knock many of the dominos over.  It is hard to tell how many of our dominos would be toppled by a meteorite.

Depending on the nature of the asteroid strike, and depending on where you currently live would depend on if you were able to survive in place, or if you needed to move to your retreat and hunker down.  However, we’d classify most asteroid strikes as probably being some type of Level 2 event.

We also don’t really know how much risk there is of a large meteorite colliding with the planet.  Smaller ones do so all the time, usually unnoticed (I can relax out on the deck in the countryside and on average will see a ‘shooting star’ pass by once every 20 minutes if the sky is clear and dark).  But a PHA?  Hopefully not in our lifetimes, and not in the lifetimes of our children, either.  But if one does collide, hopefully you’ll be prepared.

May 202012
 

A septic system is simple, reliable and an effective solution to your human waste disposal needs

Some people have made elaborate preparations for a Level 2/3 event.  They have bought their retreat.  They have their food, their fuel, their guns, their water supply, and their generator.

They’ve planned the typical one gallon of water per person per day, and hopefully allowed more than that for all the other uses one needs water for too.  And their food stores are more than sufficient.

But ask them about what happens to the food and water after it is used, and they’ll look at you blankly.  Explain some more, and they’ll get into an elaborate discussion about toilet seats on 5 gallon plastic pails, about ‘Humanure’, maybe about cutting trenches and tossing handfuls of soil or lime on top of one’s outputs.

None of it sounds very pleasant, for sure.

Why aren’t more people simply having a septic system installed at their retreat?  Costs to install a system are low (in the overall scheme of setting up a retreat costs) and the impact on allowing for a much more comfortable life when living at the retreat is enormous.

Maybe some people look upon septic systems with underserved scorn.  They are an excellent, reliable, and low-tech way of handling human waste, and are good as a solution for people living away from a reliable city sewer system in normal times as well as in adverse times.  We’ve lived in septic served houses ourselves and have never had any problems – indeed, the most unreliable sewage system we ever had was where the line to the city sewer would get blocked, regular as clockwork, every two or so years, by roots from the neighbor’s nearby large tree.

Here’s a quick introduction to the subject of septics.

Septic systems vary in size depending on the ‘load’ that is expected to be placed on them (perhaps better to say the load that will be placed in them!).  The rule of thumb is to guess at the load based on the number of bedrooms in the house the system is servicing, and to assume two people per bedroom, and each person representing 60 – 75 gallons of liquid (and solid) a day.

If you are careful, and perhaps if you use 1.6 gallon per flush toilets rather than the earlier 3.5 – 5 gallon per flush toilets, and if you have modern water conserving washing machines and dishwashers, you’ll be able to get down below the 60 gallon per person guesstimate, but for designing your system to county code standards, you’ll need to use whatever their formula is.

Once you know the gallons per day that need to be managed, you double it and that tells you the size of the tank itself.  A three bedroom house would represent a load of about 360 gallons/day (at 60 gallons per person) which doubled represents 720 gallons of tank capacity.

A sweet spot in tank prices seems to be 1000 gallon capacity (which will probably cost you $500 – $800 or so).  This is also the usual capacity of a septic tank pumping truck, and it makes good sense to match your tank capacity with a pump truck’s capacity (prior to WTSHTF).  There is never any harm in ‘too large’ a tank capacity – this is a good thing as it extends the time between pump-outs.

The other thing you need to work out is more complicated.  This is the size of the drainfield, and it is determined not just by the gallonage per day, but also by the type of soil you’ll be draining the tank into.  That same three bedroom house might need as small as a 300 sq ft drainfield (best case scenario) or as large as an 1800 sq ft drainfield (a bad scenario).  You need to call in the experts to do soil analysis, perc tests, and drainfield design.

The all up cost of a septic system for a three bedroom house may be in the range of $2500 – $4500 to install, plus permit fees and initial consultation costs, assuming a reasonably positive situation and a gravity fed system.  If you need to have a pressure system, then the cost is more likely to be around $4000 – $6500 plus permits and consulting.  Worst case scenario, with a ‘mound’ type system, you could be spending $9,000 – $20,000.

A well designed septic system running at the level it was designed for (or less) will need to be pumped out or in some other way emptied every couple of years or so.  Larger tanks require emptying less frequently.  Other than that, they should reliably work for a couple of decades without needing much attention.

Gravity systems are, as their name implies, gravity fed.  Pressure and mound systems need pumps with infrequent duty cycles and low powered motors.  They should not overload your power resources at all.

If you are careful about what you put into your septic system – especially if you don’t use a sink garbage disposal unit to increase the amount of bio-mass going into the system (you shouldn’t waste food scraps that way, anyway – either use them for feeding animals or for composting), and limit the inputs to only the, ahem, human outputs, your system will largely take care of itself.

You should also try not to have sudden peaks of inputs.  If you have a system that anticipates 420 gallons a day, it is better to give it 400 gallons a day for three days in a row than to give it 100 gallons today, 1000 gallons the next day, and 100 gallons the third day, because you want everything to have at least two days in the tank before moving on to the drainfield.  This gives time for solids to settle to the bottom (and fats to the top) leaving just a relatively free of other stuff liquid to go into the drainfield.

Recommendations for Preppers

Clearly we are recommending you should build a septic system at your retreat.

There are two extra considerations to keep in mind.

The first is that, if at all possible, try to avoid the need to have a system that requires pumps.  This will reduce the number of things that might go wrong and/or need maintenance, and also reduce the energy cost of operating your septic system.  If the entire system is fully gravity powered, then you have a very resilient system – much better to spend more up front to get a robust system than to go a cheaper route only to find yourself with a system that becomes inoperative subsequently at a time when you can no longer easily access cheap energy and ready support.

The second consideration is to over-specify everything, and to massively increase the holding tank capacities too.  We’re not quite sure what you’d do at the point where the tank needs to be pumped, so best put that day off as long as possible.

Pumping is inevitable.  The septic system works by settling the solids to the bottom of the holding tank and having the liquid overflow feed out through the drainfield.  Sooner or later, the level of solids will reach the point where they need to be pumped out.  Better to make that time as far into the future as possible, by which time there will hopefully be some infrastructure available to respond to the need.

Here’s an excellent site with much more information on the topic.