The Next Attack on the US May Not Involve Bombs or Planes

You might be looking at a foot soldier - maybe the only foot soldier - in our next war.
You might be looking at a foot soldier – maybe the only foot soldier – in our next war.

Our notions of modern war and warfare are, in largest part, hopelessly outdated and dangerously inaccurate.

When you ask most people to describe how they would expect any enemy to attack the US – whether a nation/state or an amorphous terrorist group, you’ll probably get responses ranging from nuclear missiles to crashing more planes into buildings or other sensitive areas.

But the most likely future attack may not involve bombs, and may not even require our attackers and their invading force to come within a thousand miles of our shores.  The notion of a gratuitous attack is, after all, not so much simply to kill some people and destroy some things, as it is to harm the enemy as broadly as possible.  War has sometimes been described as ‘An extension of economic bargaining by another means’ and in its ultimate analysis, most wars are either about economic issues, or, if ideologically based, are still about changing each side’s economic status.

Here’s an interesting thought to help explain that thought.  More of us probably suffered more direct harm/cost/inconvenience through the ‘Global Financial Crisis’ that unfolded in 2008 than we did when the planes crashed into the World Trade Center and Pentagon on 9/11/01.  And, for those of us inconvenienced by 9/11, our inconvenience was probably a derivative effect of the 9/11 attack rather than a direct attack – because our flight was canceled, or the flight of someone coming to see us was canceled, for example.

We say this not to belittle the horror of 9/11, nor to overlook the deaths of the approximately 3,000 people directly killed on 9/11.  But more harm was done to more of us through the bloodless global financial crisis – an event that involved no spectacular events, attacks, explosions or casualties.

Furthermore, our enemies know that if they can harm our economic strength and our infrastructure, they directly harm our military and our ability to project power and influence around the world, and – in particular – in the areas that our enemies are most directly interested in.  The size of our military is of course directly related to the ability of our economy to support it – if our economy can be destroyed, how long will it be before our military is reduced still more in size because we can’t afford it at its previous level?

For an answer to that question, look at the fall of the Soviet Union and the collapse of their military.  It is only now that Russia is becoming economically strong once more that it can afford to revitalize its armed forces.

Or, if you prefer, look at China.  Its military might is increasing in direct proportion to its economic might.

Or, for the reverse, look at Britain.  Once the proud possessor of the world’s largest navy and most mighty military forces, but its military has imploded in step with Britain’s economic decline.  Make no mistake.  There is a very direct link between economic and military strength.

Okay, enough of that as introduction.  So what will the next attack on the US look like?  This article suggests it will be a cyber-attack on our economy, rather than a classic soldier based attack on our military.  The article says that Al Qaeda are already probing and seeking ways to uncover and exploit any computer system weaknesses, anywhere in our society.

This is not new.  We‘ve written about our vulnerability to cyber attack before.  But this is the first time (that we’re aware of) that the authorities are now worrying about a targeted cyber-attack by Al Qaeda (you know, the terrorist force that President Obama assured us was broken and on the run in disarray a few years ago…..).

Do a thought experiment and wonder what would happen to your world if even only some computer systems went haywire and stopped working.  It would be a bit like the scenario that was much considered but happily never occurred on January 1, 2000 – do you remember all the concern about the ‘Y2K bug’ lurking in outdated programming code?  (If you don’t remember or didn’t understand what the Y2K bug was all about, it was because many computer programs only used two digits for the year, and so when the year (19)99 because the year (20)00, there was concern that some computer programs would crash because they might misinterpret 00 as meaning 1900 rather than 2000.  It is explained more here.)

The Y2K bug was averted in large part because the world planned and prepared for it.  Almost a third of a trillion dollars were directly spent urgently rewriting software, and who knows how much more was spent less directly on simply dumping old software and old microprocessor hardware and replacing it with more modern products that had four digit dates.  A similar problem is not now expected until 10,000, when there may be another problem due to date fields only having four rather than five digits!

One could argue that it is a shame that the Y2K bug didn’t materially impact our lives back then, because it has made us more complacent about computers and their potential to wreak havoc in our lives.

But, never mind problems 8,000 years in the future.  Please keep reading.

The Next Massive Attack on the US Will be a Cyber Attack

Much more pressing is the stated intention of Al Qaeda to attack our computer systems just as soon as they get resources in place to mount a massive coordinated strike.  We’d not notice it if one or two computers failed, but we’d sure notice it if the nation’s entire banking system crashed, or if the power grid went down, or even if the internet backbone jammed.

As the other articles we’ve written about cyber-vulnerabilities, there are weaknesses in computers and control devices everywhere we turn (for example, this article about 11 million computers at risk from one type of attack), and with the internet, these devices are increasingly accessible remotely, even from other countries.

But – and here’s the worrying thing.  Although there was a high level of public awareness about the potential impact of the Y2K bug, and a worldwide campaign to eliminate the risk prior to 1/1/01, where is the similar global action to harden up our computer systems?  It is just not there, is it.

Think about this the next time you are in an elevator and push the button to go to your chosen floor.  You are relying on the elevator’s control computer to do the right thing – to take you to the correct floor, to stop there, and to open the doors.  What say it gets reprogrammed and jams you, with the doors shut, between floors?  What would happen if almost every elevator in every building failed, simultaneously?  That might not sound life threatening, but if you live or work on the 20th floor of a building, how will you now get up and down those 20 floors?

Okay, so maybe you can struggle up and down the 20 floors.  But what say the building’s HVAC system goes haywire too.  Instead of a nice comfortable 70 degrees, the temperature goes up to 100 degrees.  What do you do then?  Smash the glass of the sealed windows to let some fresh air in (which at some times of year might be still hotter, anyway!)?

Now let’s make the traffic lights malfunction too.  Maybe they’ll just simply fail.  Or maybe they’ll randomly go green and red, encouraging accidents.  Surely you know, on the occasional times when a single traffic light is out of service, how that can back up traffic for some blocks around.  Now imagine if the entire city has failed traffic lights.  How does your daily commute sound now?

With traffic jammed up, what say a building’s heating furnace or something else misbehaves, causing a fire to break out.  How will the fire trucks get to the building to put out the fire?  The sprinklers will activate and do the job for them?  Well, maybe, but that assumes the sprinkler control system hasn’t been made inoperative too, and the water supply pumps haven’t also failed.

What about simpler things such as food and water?  Well, as we’ve already mentioned, stop the water pumps and you stop the water.  Now cause supermarket freezers and coolers to fail, and also disable their computerized re-ordering systems, and they’re down to dried good only with impaired means of resupply (particularly because the trucks will be snarled in the same traffic jams).

In truth, these are difficult and indirect ways to create chaos in our nation.  A much simpler way is just to directly attack our electrical grid.  This attack could either be via the switching control circuits, causing transformers to overload and explode, or it could (also) be via the power generating facilities.  Have the power generating plants control systems fail, or program them to dangerously overload the machinery so the hardware itself fails.  Can a nuclear plant be programmed to explode?  We don’t know, but we bet it could be.

Why not make the computers that control Wall St and our stock exchanges go crazy.  While you might think that the loss of the stock exchanges would not really matter much, the loss of liquidity would see businesses unable to fund their purchases of raw materials, and in turn, be unable to sell their finished goods because their customers also were losing access to their credit facilities.  This would be a slower failure perhaps than just turning off the electrical grid, but if you have some of your retirement savings in any form of electronic/intangible holding (and, unless you have gold bars underneath your mattress, the chances are that most/all of your savings are in electronic abstract form) you’ve lost access to them.  Not just businesses would be harmed.  People could no longer buy and sell houses, cars, or much at all.

More immediately and with much greater direct effect, take out the banking system’s computers, and you can no longer use credit cards for payment, and you can no longer withdraw cash from your bank account.  What happens then when you next go to buy groceries, or gasoline, or anything, anywhere?

The possibilities for harm via attacking our nation’s computers are without limit.

Note that while we rate our risk of cyber-attack as high, most of our adversaries are not similarly at risk, because they are either low-tech nations with less reliance on computers, or alternatively, they are amorphous organizations with no physical territory or computerized infrastructure that could be targeted.

The Benefits of Cyber-Warfare to an Attacking Force

Now, think about it as if you were an attacker.  What would you rather do?  Go to boot camp, endure three months of basic training, learn to shoot, and then be shipped off to invade the US, where you’ll be shot at, likely injured, and possibly killed?  Or take some programming classes, and from the comfort of your own living room, in pyjamas and slippers, with a coke in one hand and a burrito in the other, write a computer program and insert it into a far away computer in another country, totally free of discomfort or personal risk?

There’s another benefit for an attacking force, too.  If you are talking soldiers, obviously a platoon of 12 men requires, yes, 12 people.  A battalion of 900 people similarly requires 900 people, and so on.

But, in cyber warfare, one single person can ‘enlist’ thousands of computers by infecting them with viruses that will, at a particular time, take over the computer.  That one person can then instruct all these thousands of ‘zombie’ computers to attack simultaneously.  An entire massive cyber-invasion can be planned and executed by a single person.

Now, what if you were a defender.  It is one thing to see a line of advancing enemy troops, and as part of your force, to defend your territory against them and to repel them.  But what good are ‘boots on the ground’, aircraft, tanks, guns, night sights and everything else when your enemy is not physically present, but instead is somewhere else, but you don’t know exactly where?

There’s another issue, too.  How do you fight back against a computer virus?  You don’t know where in the world it came from, and even if you did find out, by the time you’ve located the source of the virus, the person has moved, and initiated another attack from another city (or even another country).

As we started off saying, anyone who plans to fight a war with guns and bullets these days is short-sighted and crazy.  Why go to all the hassle and personal risk when you can simply unleash a computer virus that will do more damage than all the bullets and bombs you could carry?

The flipside of this is also relevant.  Anyone who plans their nation’s defense on the assumption that the enemy will only be using bombs and bullets is also crazy.  Sure, we need to keep a national military force, but our most likely attack is going to come through a computer circuit, and rather than being aimed at our troops, it will be aimed at the soft underbelly of our society – its vulnerable and unprotected computer systems.  That’s where we need to be placing the most focus and defensive resource.

Our enemies have told us they want to cyber-attack us, and our enemies are trying, on a daily basis, to infiltrate our computer networks.  The war has already started.

Bottom Line for Preppers

A cyber-attack could bring about an instant disaster, but may instead create a ‘boiling frog’ effect in society.  Our social support systems and structure would slowly degrade, rather than instantly fail.  This would engender tolerance of the problem and hope that it will be resolved, but if the attack is staged and ongoing, instead of improving, more systems will go off-line and problems will get worse.

This makes it very difficult to know when you should evacuate your city area and move to your retreat.  We discuss this in our article ‘Why slow disasters may be as serious as sudden disasters‘.  We urge your to (re)read that article and create your own ‘lines in the sand’ that will trigger your decision to bug-out and switch from every-day mode to TEOTWAWKI mode.

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