September 16, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: The Threat of Crumbling U.S. Infrastructure

• While protecting critical infrastructure is a high national security priority, more basic, everyday infrastructure may pose greater risks.

• Insufficient investment and maintenance have led to overcrowded trains and roadways, presenting attractive terror targets.

• Increasing the capacity of transportation, bridges, water, and power supplies not only strengthens the economy; it makes society more resilient.

• As the threat of terrorism persists, strengthening infrastructure resilience and redundancies is a fundamental component of a holistic counterterrorism and emergency response strategy.


According to a recent study by Brown University, the U.S. has spent $4.79 trillion on the global war on terror. Despite such a massive expenditure, the problem of global terrorism is in many ways worse now than in 2001. While enormous resources and focus have been placed on addressing the more obvious issues associated with the threat of terrorism, very little focus has been given to the implications of crumbling U.S. infrastructure on emergency preparedness and response. In 2013, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) estimated that the U.S. needed to invest $3.6 trillion by 2020 just to maintain current infrastructure, much of which was already falling apart. Increased spending on infrastructure is not just a vital national economic imperative; it is increasingly a counterterrorism and emergency preparedness imperative as well. 

When the terms ‘terrorism’ and ‘infrastructure’ are used in the same sentence, the topic is usually about hardening critical infrastructure that warrants serious protection; among such critical infrastructure are nuclear power plants, airports, and many government installations. In the fifteen years since the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. has significantly increased security levels and protocols at such facilities. At the same time, however, the day-to-day infrastructure upon which the country relies is falling apart, making it susceptible to terrorism in less obvious ways. 

U.S. cities such as Washington D.C., New York, and Boston, have struggled with the inevitable results of encouraging more use of commuter rail systems, while simultaneously cutting funding for expansion and better maintenance. Putting aside the economic and social costs of continuous gridlock, overcrowded trains and platforms are a security nightmare. Well-run public transit systems flow efficiently; stoppages, inefficiencies, and critical masses of people present highly attractive terror targets. Trains and subways are prime terror targets. The unaddressed deterioration of nearly all major U.S. rail systems make them easier to attack, and the consequences of any attack far more deadly and costly. With little resiliency built into many of the country’s overstressed rail systems, subway systems already single-tracked will be shut down completely in the wake of an attack. 

The once-vaunted U.S. interstate system is now barely keeping up with traffic, while major cities such as Houston, Atlanta, Los Angeles, and New York are breaking down into chronic gridlock. Again, putting aside the many economic downsides of wasting time and opportunity in traffic jams, crowded streets present a terror target while simultaneously hindering emergency response. In many cities, a single broken-down car in a roadway is a cascading negative event that can last hours. A terror attack—however minor—on a gridlocked road could paralyze a city. 

From bridges to airport screening lines, the U.S. is running in the red in terms of what it takes to seriously delay and disrupt transportation systems. There will always be vulnerability points in roadways and rails systems, but the lack of capacity building—let alone sufficient maintenance—ensures that any attack would result in disproportionate consequences. While terrorism is not the only reason to increase the efficiency, resiliency, and capacity of U.S. infrastructure, building resilience and redundancy into everyday infrastructure is a critical counterterrorism and national security imperative.


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