Why the US should care about the China-India 'blackout war'

Why the US should care about the China-India 'blackout war'
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The future usually arrives before anyone is ready for it, especially in warfare. China apparently blacked out Mumbai, India recently by cyber-attack, credibly threatening that Beijing could plunge all of India into darkness through cyber warfare. Experts warn that national electric grids are a technological Achilles heel.

The Mumbai blackout could be one of those “Monitor v. Merrimack” moments in military history when a revolutionary new way of warfare suddenly becomes recognizable, even to the dullest. New military technologies that can change everything are often laughingly dismissed by  establishments that are too busy planning for “business as usual.” 

From machine guns at the Somme (1916), panzer divisions in France (1940) and (Japanese) carrier aviation at Pearl Harbor (1941), nations have learned the hard way. Obsolete thinking prevails until someone gets hammered, usually by an aggressor.

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The Mumbai cyber blackout, like Russia’s cyber blackouts of Ukraine, and blackouts in Mexico (2013), Yemen (2014) and Pakistan (2015) caused by terrorist sabotage of electric grids, are a new category of warfare. These “blackout wars” foreshadow an existential threat that could end our civilization and kill millions of Americans.

Why did Beijing blackout Mumbai?   

China and India are fighting over borders in the Himalayas, again. Ever since China swallowed Tibet in 1951, Beijing periodically tries to expand, at India’s expense. But today China and India are both nuclear-armed, so fighting is deliberately “restrained” to avoid nuclear escalation. Both refrain from a shooting war with modern weapons for control of the high Himalayas. Instead their combat uses shovels, clubs and fists — the two nuclear powers fighting, on top of the world, with Stone Age tactics.

China evidently thinks threatening a cyber blackout of India could settle matters, without escalation to conventional or nuclear conflict. Protracted blackout of India’s electric grid would be catastrophic for its economy, population and military capabilities.               

Indian officials are understandably alarmed and now regretting that their national electric power grid and other critical infrastructures depend so much upon equipment imported from China — that likely increases their vulnerability.

“Military experts in India have renewed calls for the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to replace China-made hardware for India’s power sector and its critical rail system,” reports the New York Times. The newspaper article describes technical details of China’s blackout war against India. But conspicuous by its absence is any mention of President BidenJoe BidenChina eyes military base on Africa's Atlantic coast: report Biden orders flags be flown at half-staff through Dec. 9 to honor Dole Biden heading to Kansas City to promote infrastructure package MORE’s suspension of former President TrumpDonald TrumpBiden heading to Kansas City to promote infrastructure package Trump calls Milley a 'f---ing idiot' over Afghanistan withdrawal First rally for far-right French candidate Zemmour prompts protests, violence MORE’s Executive Order 13920, “Securing the United States Bulk-Power System” (May 1, 2020) designed to reduce dependency on foreign-supplied equipment for the U.S. electric power grid, especially equipment from China.

Reportedly there are some 300 high-voltage transformers in the U.S. electric power grid manufactured in China. Moreover, the U.S. national grid depends upon an unknown number of China-supplied control systems, called SCADAs, probably numbering in the thousands. 

These China-supplied systems, critically important to the operation of the U.S. electric grid, could have built-in vulnerabilities to cyber bugs and electromagnetic pulse (EMP). China’s version of cyber warfare includes attacks by nuclear and non-nuclear EMP weapons.

President Biden would be wise to strengthen and reinstate Executive Order 13920. Electricity is foundational to U.S. national security. Critical equipment necessary to the operation of the nation’s power grid — which sustains the economy, military and population — should be made in America.

The Biden administration deserves great credit for continuing implementation of the White House Executive Order on Coordinating National Resilience to Electromagnetic Pulses (March 26, 2019), designed to implement recommendations of the congressional EMP Commission.

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One strategy for achieving resilience of electric grids and other critical infrastructures is to require through national manufacturing standards that transformers, SCADAs, and other vital equipment incorporate EMP and cyber protection. 

Most electric equipment is manufactured to be resistant to lightning, a form of natural EMP. Standards could be upgraded to protect against “super-lightning” from EMP weapons. Department of Defense experience over 50 years in manufacturing military equipment with nuclear EMP protection in the design increases costs only 1 to 6 percent.

President Biden and the new White House cybersecurity czar should compel electric utilities to protect themselves from cyber and EMP attacks. Hundreds of people have died in California wildfires and a Texas ice storm because the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) failed to make utilities undertake simple preparedness for severe weather. They cannot be trusted to protect against cyber attacks and EMP.

Utility lobbyists advocate retaliatory cyber attacks by the U.S. government for deterrence, instead of protecting electric grids. But retaliatory cyber warfare cannot substitute for hardening critical infrastructures against cyber and EMP attacks — and is risky. The U.S. is far more vulnerable than its adversaries. Russia and China make frequent cyber attacks on the U.S. because they know we are vulnerable, and know they can hit back harder.

Moreover, Beijing apparently thinks blacking out India’s national electric grid is less escalatory than a shooting war in the Himalayas. In 2020, China’s strategists threatened an EMP attack on the U.S. Navy in the South China Sea, as one of their “less escalatory” options. 

Cyber warfare between nuclear-armed powers is not a good idea, for either side and 2021 too easily could become a nuclear version of 1914.     

Dr. Peter Vincent Pry is executive director of the Task Force on National and Homeland Security. He served as chief of staff to the EMP Commission, on the staff of the House Armed Services Committee, and was an intelligence officer with the CIA. He is author of “The Power And The Light: The Congressional EMP Commission’s War to Save America.”