Foreign Policy Blogs

Electricity and The Future of War

Perhaps it is a complete coincidence that Brazil experienced a massive blackout affecting 60 million people only days after last week’s 60 Minutes showed a segment on cyber attacks on infrastructure including banks, internal governmental computer systems and power grids. In it, they mentioned a previously successful attack on a major electric power grid, which sources reported to be in Brazil. Apparently, either it wasn’t Brazil or the country didn’t learn the first time. The world does hope that they get it fixed in time for the Olympics in 2016, if not for the everyday lives of the inhabitants.

This time, a hydroelectric plant between Paraguay and Brazil suddenly and without explanation went offline. It stayed offline in Brazil for hours, affecting hundreds of communities as well as Rio. (Paraguay only lost power for a short time.) The failure has been blamed on a short-circuit, on transmission lines, falling trees, and lightening, but none of the explanations has stuck. Everyone denies sabotage. This is undoubtedly both embarrassing and puzzling for Brazilian officials who, according to the New York Times, have spent $47 billion in new plants and transmission systems.

Of course, Brazil isn’t the only country to have power issues. Many countries like Venezuela and Pakistan have electric problems because they do not invest in essential upkeep or development and because of poor management and planning. All countries experience power issues based on weather; in 2003, the US experienced a blackout blamed on a stick falling on transmission lines. (I experienced the blackout – it must have been a very, very large stick.)

But perhaps hackers did bring down the Brazil power system. Security experts have discussed it for years — what would happen if a hostile power used our computer dependence against us? I think it is worth thinking about.

Almost always these security experts build scenarios where an enemy attacks the US and its opening salvo is to turn off the lights in some major city and have the country drive itself crazy trying to figure out what’s happening. And then the Defense Department computers fail (for things like weapons systems and communications) and the banks fail etc etc.

I confess I have always thought that the above was a silly scenario since that would be more vandalism and harassment that actual war strategy — these glitches can be fixed and it’s hard to say that they constitute war — unfriendly, certainly, but hardly a real war that determines the fate of nations.

A more likely scenario, I think, is, that once we (or any other country) did get into a real shooting war with a powerful equal, to see cyber attacks on the power grid, communications and beyond. They would happen in the middle of the war, with sophisticated and complex tactical maneuvers. Fooling with the electrical power — to businesses, homes, urban transportation systems, and more —  in random patterns around the enemy country, attacking the computer controls on dams and nuclear plants, disinformation  (or telecommunications, military systems, banks and even more monetary records like currency and the central bank) — the creative mischief horizon recedes into infinity. You can bomb an enemy only so much, but you can harm and harass this way to amplify the effect exponentially.

We should take a moment to think about how totally messed up our way of life would be if we lost control of or could not depend on our energy supply, and other infrastructure controlled by computers. We have not had an all-out war between major powers in a very long time. As any student of military history will tell you, after a long peace, a new war is especially horrible because of all the new, terrible, unexpected and underestimated weapons and strategies developed in the interim.

Even if Brazil’s blackout turns out to be innocuous, perhaps it would serve us better if we look at the disruption it caused and think of it as a harbinger — and take a moment to consider what it says about out weaknesses and daily assumptions when it comes to energy.



Jodi Liss

Jodi Liss is a former consultant for the United Nations, the United Nations Development Programme, and UNICEF. She has worked on the “Lessons From Rwanda” outreach project and the Post-Conflict Economic Recovery report. She has written about natural resources for the World Policy Institute's blog and for Punch (Nigeria).