Today’s world, while safer for most than at any other time in human history, is ripe with burgeoning conflict, simmering just beneath the surface. Civil wars and regional spats in nations like Yemen and Syria draw powerful militaries into proxy-conflicts. Looming concerns about a resource-scarce future have prompted Russia to lay claim to the Arctic, while China devotes its energy to securing the South China Sea. Nations like North Korea and Iran have their nuclear programs subdued through sanctions and politicking, but no experts suggest any treaty or agreement will stem the nuclear tide forever.
Put succinctly, if humanity’s tenacity for global war is cyclical, we seem to nearing the end of our reprieve. The next great conflict may not be fought by the men and women in uniform today, but increasingly, it seems like it may be fought by their children.
War is nothing new, and despite new technologies emerging every day, chances are good that the battlefield of such a hypothetical conflict would look familiar to service members in the fight today — but beyond the firefights and the security zones, a modern war against an opponent with the resources and capabilities of a near-peer in the future will be unlike any conflict the American people have ever known. The insulation Americans have enjoyed from conflict tucked safely between two oceans with allies to the North and South, will give way in favor of a new kind of conflict that may prove every bit as deadly.
According to reports out of the U.K., British military forces recently conducted a drill that approximated a Russian invasion of the West. As a part of the endeavor, British forces executed a mock cyber attack against Moscow, blotting out the power and plummeting the nation’s capital into darkness. This concept, of course, is nothing new in warfare. Cutting the supply of essentials to enemy strongholds is a concept as old as strongholds and supply lines — but where warfighters once had to sever those lines by hand, they are now cut digitally from anywhere on the planet.
Earlier this year, the Trump administration levied a new series of sanctions against the Russian government for their apparent infiltration of the American commercial power grid. According to U.S. government reports, the Russian intrusion was contained once it was discovered, but it’s important to acknowledge how significant a breach of American national security that is: turning off the electricity to American homes is not just an inconvenience, it can be absolutely devastating.
In fact, a recent study into what effect an EMP (electromagnetic pulse) attack would have on the United States concluded that a nation-wide power outage could result in the deaths of as much as 90% of the American population. An EMP attack, however, would require multiple nuclear weapons being detonated high above the United States — and while America’s midcourse defense system may not be as effective as some would hope, it would at least have a shot at intercepting the inbound nukes. A cyber attack with the same intent, however, could be done quietly with keystrokes from a basement anywhere in the world. There would be no early warning, no opportunity to intercept: Americans would simply get up one morning into a world of continued darkness.
The ensuing silence would be the greatest weapon America’s enemies could wield, as people grew frantic about the situation. Things will only get worse as food becomes more scarce, especially in densely packed population centers that are reliant on food being shipped in and refrigerated to support the population. The sick and the feeble would die first, and as people’s parents and children began to succumb — to the elements, dehydration, starvation and more — the American people would forgo their sense of national unity in favor of survival. These people would be unaware of the war raging elsewhere, as their fight becomes one for survival.
This method of injecting confusion and panic into a nation’s population has already been used by Russia in places like Ukraine, and will undoubtedly see expanded use as national level militaries increasingly look to cyber warfare as a means to expand capabilities. The systems we rely on to live our lives are, by their very nature, a strategic weakness worthy of exploiting — and the more reliant a society is on those systems, the more dramatic the result will be when severed from them.
The confusion that would result after a concerted cyber “invasion” would make a nation’s populace its own worst enemy, as developed countries disintegrated into millions individual struggles for resources. No communications. No sign of help on the way.
Of course, this tragic hypothetical is not a foregone conclusion. Diplomacy is as alive and well as conflict in our modern world, but in the meantime, consider this:
What would you do if the lights shut off right now, wherever you are, and didn’t come back on?