Why is America Attacking Russia’s Power Grid?
As proof that cyberwar is going to take on as great an importance as nuclear war is as a way to strike at an enemy homeland, the New York Times recently reported that the United States has infiltrated the computer systems that operate Russia’s power grid.
“The United States is stepping up digital incursions into Russia’s electric power grid in a warning to President Vladimir V. Putin and a demonstration of how the Trump administration is using new authorities to deploy cyber tools more aggressively, current and former government officials said.
“In interviews over the past three months, the officials described the previously unreported deployment of American computer code inside Russia’s grid and other targets as a classified companion to more publicly discussed action directed at Moscow’s disinformation and hacking units around the 2018 midterm elections.”
The story also suggested that President Trump had “not been fully briefed” on the operation for fear of what he might do. Trump himself tweeted that the Times had committed a “virtual act of treason” according to the AP for printing the story.
Then, in a separate tweet, the president claimed that the story was “not true.”
However, presuming that the story is true, it is not surprising that the United States has developed ways to bring down Russia’s power grid if circumstances warrant.
The Russians did use cyberwar techniques to sow chaos and suspicion during the 2016 presidential elections. Evidence exists that Moscow is developing ways to bring down power grids in the United States. The American operation constitutes deterrent against a Russian attack, at least until tools are developed to prevent Moscow from conducting one, to begin with.
On other fronts, a cyber attack on an enemy’s power grid could be a relatively cheap way to respond to provocative military actions. Recently, Iran has been attacking shipping in and around the Persian Gulf region. The United States is considering a response, which ranges from escorting tankers as President Ronald Reagan did during the Tanker War of the late 1980s to attacking Iranian naval and air assets.
However, turning off the lights, say, in Tehran would be another way to impress upon the Islamic Republic the folly of going against the United States again.
Iran knows something of what cyberwar can do. The United States and Israel conducted cyberwar against that country’s nuclear program, causing significant delays using a virus called Stuxnet. Stuxnet attacked the computers that operated centrifuges that are used to enrich uranium.
It was the first digital weapon that affected physical devices beyond computer systems to attack the devices that they controlled.
While Russia continues to launch cyber assaults on various American installations that control power systems, it did bring down the power grid that provides electricity to much of Ukraine in early 2018. The loss was only temporary, but it illustrated a new-found ability of Russian to hurt its enemies at the merest touch of a send key.
Meanwhile, the Chinese are conducting hacking operations the old-fashioned way, infiltrating commercial and government computer systems in the United States to gather intelligence on intellectual property and technological secrets. China means to be the supreme superpower on the planet sometime in the current century and cyberwar is one way it intends to accomplish this goal.
The news that the United States has inserted code into the computer systems that control Russia’s power grid was leaked to the New York Times as a warning to Putin that there are limits to what he can do in the way of cyberwar against the United States. Whether or not President Trump was kept out of the loop is not relevant.
Let us suppose that the United States, in response to Russian military moves, brought down the power in Moscow. If the outage occurs for a few hours, the results would be inconvenient, but perhaps sharp enough to cause Putin to draw back. However, if the power is gone for weeks or even months, the damage to Russia’s economy, not to mention the loss of life, could be catastrophic.
The same could be said if an enemy were to turn off the lights in an American city, say New York or Los Angeles.
The results may be an arms race in which carious cyberwar groups struggle to develop both viruses and defenses to ensure that they can prevail if a full-fledged cyberwar were to break out, perhaps as a part of a larger war.
A new version of the Cold War era balance of terror could result, in which each side is restrained from a full-scale cyber attack for fear of being dealt the same blow.