July 6, 2012

TSG IntelBrief: National Resilience: Only as Strong as the Weakest Link

As of early July 2012, the massive and ongoing power outages across expansive portions of the eastern United States after severe thunderstorms on June 29th have meaning far beyond meteorology and weather prediction. In a very real sense, this is yet another "expected but nonetheless slow to resolve" scenario that provides a deeply relevant glimpse of the potential cascading effects that could unfold as a result of a potential new twist on asymmetric warfare. And as is true within the counterintuitive nature of asymmetric conflict, despite the decidedly low-tech nature of this alternative way of war — one that makes it  far more accessible to criminals and terrorists — it still carries the potential to inflict substantial damage on high technology targets. It also highlights a very present, and very disturbing reality: the United States, arguably the leader in technological innovation in the information age, remains imprudently vulnerable to a single point of failure.

This conclusion is based on the undeniable fact that large sections of America — including the seat of power in Washington, DC — become paralyzed not by an attack, conventional or unconventional, but by the unexpected consequences of a powerful wind. To fit this into a often impenetrable vernacular of those who diligently study asymmetric strategies such as swarming or fourth (or even fifth) generation warfare, this new style of conflict might be characterized as "way-of-life-warfare." In the future, meticulously planned but relatively low-cost attacks would target lives not only through the systems that maintain our ways of life, as would infrastructural warfare, but also through the patterns and beliefs upon which the systems work. The more advanced the systems, the greater their perceived stability and, as a result, the greater the impact when these systems fail.

In "way-of-life warfare," kinetic attacks may target the physical dimension, but the real focus will be the impact on the the cognitive/affective domain. In other words, it is not so much the loss of facilities or services caused by an attack, but rather the disappointed expectations, the shattered confidence, and the shaken belief in safety and security that will produce the deeper and longer lasting effects. The real change, then, results in how a population thinks and feels about their government, their community, and their way of life.


Necessary and Sufficient

It would likely not take too many repeated failures for people to lose faith not only in vulnerable infrastructural systems, but also in the agencies and officials charged with keeping those systems safe and functioning. In this new lost-cost warfare, sophisticated cyber capabilities are not necessary to throughly disrupt unprepared modern lives; rather, it only takes a failure of imagination and a failure to act.

Granted, potential impacts from a future way-of-life-warfare attacks are unlikely to be as widespread as the violent storms of last week that left over 2 million people across 6 states without electricity, but that is as irrelevant as suggesting that any future conflict would likely be smaller than World War II. A closer look at the numbers reveals that 75 percent of the population directly affected by the storm lived in a small area of Northern Virginia and Washington D.C., a region that, as noted above, also happens to be the heart of the U.S. Government (USG). And given the immense investment the USG has made since the low-cost/high-impact 9/11 attacks in studying the intricacies of  asymmetric warfare — and developing its own finely-tuned abilities in this arena —  it is fairly disconcerting to consider how vulnerable the USG remains to the low tech end of the conflict spectrum as demonstrated by how intractably tethered the region was to a single point of failure system. Indeed, wind is but one of many forces, natural or man-made, that can bring down power lines in strategic areas.

A problem of this scope cannot simply be resolved by burying power lines or trimming trees on a more regular basis. Just as the effects unfold in the cognitive dimension, so, too, will the solution. As noted above, this is less a challenge of technology and more a crisis of imagination (something the historic figure, Albert Einstein, described as being even more valuable than knowledge). Imagination, based on a fluency with possible scenarios not yet experienced, is at the core of the process of developing what can be described as systemic anticipation.


Redundancy and Resilience

Militaries across the globe prepare for potential conflict scenarios with a range of contingency plans, often supported by layers of redundant backup plans. While such an approach would seem prudent — and appropriate — given the risks of armed conflict, it is also arguably prudent — and appropriate — when dealing with civilian infrastructure as it becomes both vital and vulnerable in equal measure. Just as a military capability undergirded by a single point of failure support system would be vulnerable to a well-placed (even lucky) attack by even a much weaker foe, these civilian systems must not be similarly vulnerable given the very real and very certain risks to our society.

To be truly proficient in the art and science of conducting asymmetric warfare, a nation must, at the same time, become more resistant to its consequences. The fact that most Americans (and their counterparts in other developed countries) place a nearly unconscious dependence on modern infrastructure and the benefits it provides might be an accurate indicator of allegiance to — and trust in — the governing system.

The situation that unfolded in Iraq not long after the 2003 invasion provides a useful illustration of this very point. If there was a single redeeming quality of the diabolical Iraqi regime under the last Saddam Hussein, it was the fact that utilities were provided on a fundamentally consistent and relatively reliable basis. This simple, way-of-life reality abruptly changed  soon after the invasion, and when the coalition government was unable to expeditiously restore uninterrupted electricity and water, or reasonable traffic patterns around checkpoints, Iraqis became increasingly susceptible to alternative messages from extremist factions. Even though only a small percentage of the population subsequently engaged in active resistance against the Coalition Provisional Authority efforts to manage national affairs, history clearly notes that many conflicts are decided, in large part, by only a small percentage of the population.

This is not to suggest that a thunderstorm will bring a revolution to America or Europe. But given the fact that stability and economic growth stem in no small measure from stable, highly reliable infrastructure, the impact of a disruption appears to be significant regardless of the cause. While the present unrest in Europe stems from economic problems, if power to European cities were to be disrupted by sabotage, the unrest would almost certainly intensify. And such a scenario would hold true practically anywhere, including the United States. For technologically advanced societies to believe their sophisticated infrastructure makes them immune to instability is the height of hubris. Policymakers and regulators alike would therefore be well served by designing a much greater degree of redundancy — of resiliency  — into their infrastructures both in terms of standard operating procedures and, most importantly, also in terms of preventative measures.

If the goal of a militarily-weaker opponent is to orchestrate a level of disruption that will strike fear in the heart of their adversary, then attacking their opponent's infrastructure is a strategically viable course of action. With cyber warfare primarily still the domain of the nation-state (although increasingly less so), toppling transformers or disabling pump stations would be a realistic course of action for non-state actors seeking to maximize their strategic effect.

While thunderstorms are not entirely predictable, the fact that they will occur is a given. In a similar fashion, it should be understood that while the timing of future "way-of-life-warfare" attacks cannot be known, the daily vulnerability of single-point-of-failure systems to such attacks is a certainty…as are the consequences. To be sure, a week without basic services would literally disconnect the population from the government's most direct measure of its power, and serves as a tempting symbol for groups seeking to separate the citizen from the state.



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