By Richard Sale
Last week’s headlines said it succinctly: “New cyber attacks from Iran hit U.S. enterprises focusing on energy sector.”
This new offensive ended up revealed by American officials and private security experts. News reports said attacks targeted IT structures, “especially the American oil, gas and electricity companies.”
While U.S. intelligence officials said the Iranian attacks were ineffective, they also said Iran not the only country to worry about when it comes to attempted power outages.
ISSSource learned China has also been perfecting blackout technology developed by the United States back in 1985. The Russians, too, have developed blackout techniques derived from U.S. technology. Through various espionage programs, the very weapons the U.S. developed are now coming back to haunt the U.S.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has already completed studies about the long-term effects of long-term blackouts on the U.S. population. Power outages bring darkness, and with darkness comes crime. Blackouts also breed uncertainty and a feeling of vulnerability. Vulnerability breeds health problems. If the blackouts occurred during a heat wave, air conditioners wouldn’t work, and the elderly could become sick or worse. There would be no street lights to help an ambulance get to a hospital. In addition, residences would be out of water if their water pumps ran on electricity. Price gouging would occur. Business would come to a halt, costing millions of dollars. Thousands of flights would end up canceled. Trains and subways couldn’t move, and even when the power came back on, the mess of scheduling continues.
The biggest fear among U.S. officials is having a repeat of the Northeast blackout of 2003, which was a widespread power outage that occurred throughout parts of the Northeast and Midwest in the U.S. and the Canadian province of Ontario. This event occurred August 14, 2003, at 4:10 p.m. EDT. While some power was restored by 11 p.m., many did not get power back until two days later. The blackout’s primary cause was a software bug in the alarm system at a control room of the FirstEnergy Corp. in Ohio. Operators were unaware of the need to re-distribute power after overloaded transmission lines hit unpruned foliage. A local blackout cascaded into a huge and widespread distress on the electric grid.
Blackouts: A New Weapon
While DHS has studied the affects of a long-term blackout, U.S. blackout technology first came about by accident.
During a peaceful January evening in 1985, the city of San Diego, twinkled and sparkled like a bed of gems that closely bordered the vast, black ocean reaching to Japan. It was a peaceful night, when, at a stroke, all those lights of the city and the surrounding counties went out and stayed in blackness for over three hours.
On that evening, the U.S. Navy was conducting exercises, as it usually did, off the city’s coast, and so San Diego’s air traffic controllers were not concerned about Navy aircraft out over the ocean. After all, the Navy’s Pacific air forces based nearby at Miramar Naval Air Station, and some of its planes, called “electronic countermeasure” aircraft, were participating in the second day of a quarterly exercise called “Hey Rube 85-2.” The six-day exercise was to train pilots on how to defend aircraft carrier battle groups, a Navy spokesman said at the time.
A total of 31 of their airplanes were flying 100 to 300 miles southwest of San Diego and were dropping “chaff,” as part of the exercise. Chaff, as described back then, consisted of “hair-like slivers of a composite aluminum-fiberglass material resembling fine Christmas tree tinsel.” Unfortunately, the term “chaff” sounds innocent, but the word meant to mislead the public. The Royal Air Force used “chaff” against the German Luftwaffe in WWII, but the chaff used in the “Hey Rube” exercise consisted of shards of glass impregnated with metal and bonded to pieces of rope. Chaff had suddenly passed from a nuisance to a serious weapon. When dispensed over a large area, its aim was to hurt and disrupt.
On that night, “chaff” went out in bulk, creating a dense, cloud-like image on radar. Normally, any chaff dispensed from an aircraft falls into the sea. The intention of this chaff was be lighter so it would stay in the air longer. But the chaff released on that Wednesday night, instead of floating down to the sea, ended up carried aloft by strong northeasterly winds that had not been forecast, and “a couple thousand pounds” of the stuff drifted toward San Diego. It ended up being draped over the city’s power lines, according to U.S. intelligence officials interviewed by ISSSource.
The effect was shocking. The chaff resulted in a 50-mile-wide cloud of nontoxic metal particles drifting over the San Diego area which proved to be the cause of a three-hour power failure that inadvertently knocked out electrical service to 65,000 homes and businesses in San Diego County. Traffic jams occurred when the signal lights failed at intersections. The outage was the cause of at least one minor auto accident; it temporarily forced a San Diego television station off the air and it cut service to 100,000 cable television subscribers. Within seconds the city had an unexplained blackout. After hours of questioning, the cause remained unknown. Radar service at Lindbergh Field also was temporarily disrupted during the incident, but no departing or arriving aircraft had to divert, Federal Aviation Administration officials said.
The manager of the FAA’s Terminal Radar Control facility at Miramar Naval Air Station, which services Lindbergh Field, recalled the Navy been previously notified him they would be conducting exercises off the coast. So when air traffic controllers first spotted the chaff cloud 55 miles away — the maximum range of their radar scopes – there was no cause for alarm. But fear began to rise like water in a glass, as the controllers watched the cloud spread over much of San Diego County and then the lights went out.
The Navy denied culpability, claiming they had done nothing. That ended up being false. As the rolling power outage struck, the FAA’s radar screens were inoperable for about three minutes. The system quickly returned to service after FAA workers activated an emergency diesel generator. In addition, the chaff cloud completely “whited out” the radar screens. For approximately the next three hours controllers depended on a secondary radar system to keep track of aircraft that were landing and taking off, the manager said.
“This wasn’t the first time we’ve dropped chaff,” a Navy spokesman said at the time. “We do it quite a bit. We did it the day before and had no problems.”
But while the Navy denied everything, San Diego Gas & Electric Co. sued the Navy for big money due for widespread repairs, and it won.
While the U.S. paid heavy compensation, the San Diego accident formed the basis of a new innovation. Over time, the U.S. developed other tiny fibers that could do the same job more efficiently. The new weapon developed into a deployable device called a warhead Kit-2.
Kit-2 was to work with the Tomahawk Missile and could deploy at various ranges. The weapon remains a closely guarded secret because if known, it could work against U.S. power supplies and the effect would be disastrous, U.S. intelligence sources said.
The system continued to develop. Soon Kit-2 became available in a new version, i.e. anti-communication systems chaff. This new chaff could produce enormous noise in the enemy communication systems, bringing the unit to a “radio isolation state.” The weapon’s mission was to make communication and power units dysfunctional.
This new chaff made its debut in the U.S.-Iraq War 1991.
According to U.S. intelligence officials, interviewed by ISSSource, the anti-power chaff weapon was in full use in that war. The U.S. created a list of Iraq’s 28 main power sources, and the Kit-2s deployed. Before the first U.S. bombers attacked, most of Iraq’s defense power supplies ended up shut down. Most stationary radar units using local supplies were inoperable and gave no resistance to the fighter and interdiction forces of the U.S. Navy. This was a huge benefit. Only mobile scud batteries with mounted radars were a problem. SAS, SBS and SEAL operations revealed their camouflaged locations to the air attackers. Thus, the Kit-2 teams were the instantaneous heroes. All the power generators attacked by the Kit-2s remained out of service for most of the war.
The power cut around the country not only brought the business to a halt but also brought the morale of citizens down. Some ships attacked by the Kit-2s became immobile and lifeless. The morale of the Iraq population plummeted.
The U.S.-developed chaff was now a serious weapon — some models were developed and designed to be sucked into the air intakes of Soviet ships, and its existence was a closely guarded secret. If the world knew that America had developed a weapon that could black out an enemy’s power supply, it would not be long before the Soviets or someone else tried to use it on America.
Against that backdrop, U.S. utilities today are working hard on “smart kits” to be resistant to this sort of cascading failure, but the work is far from completed, and the threat lingers.
Richard Sale was United Press International’s Intelligence Correspondent for 10 years and the Middle East Times, a publication of UPI. He is the author of Clinton’s Secret Wars and Traitors.