For the conspiracy-minded among us, Plum Island, New York, may have a familiar ring to it. Deep within the tin foil hat-wearing corners of the internet, Plum Island’s Animal Disease Center is rumored to be the site of gruesome government experiments in the vein of “The Island of Dr. Moreau.” Legends of biological weapons programs and genetically modified creatures on Plum Island have only grown in recent years, thanks in large part to the discovery of a strange-looking carcass that washed up on a nearby Long Island beach in 2008. The creature was dubbed “the Montauk Monster,” and among the locals, there’s little debate as to where it came from: Plum Island.
The reality of Plum Island, however, may actually be more disturbing than the fiction, if not quite as theatrical. Earlier this month, Plum Island was the site of a DARPA-led training initiative in which cyber warfare experts and energy grid operators joined forces to prepare for an attack that experts contend could result in the deaths of 90% of the American population over the span of just a few years: a large-scale invasion of the American electrical grid.
Earlier this year, the Trump administration levied a new series of sanctions against the Russian government for their infiltration of a number of assets associated with the nation’s electrical infrastructure. While the American government claims to have located and done away with any malicious software or backdoors the Russian operatives may have left behind, it confirmed the idea that American opponents are using cyber warfare techniques to gain access the United States electrical grid.
The United States, like most highly developed nations around the world, has grown dependent on reliable electricity for more than just creature comforts. The vast majority of military bases, intelligence, and law enforcement agencies all rely on commercially sourced power within the United States for day-to-day operations and communications. Without electricity to process and refrigerate foods, the nation’s urban populations would be plunged into starvation. Medication wouldn’t reach patients; winters would freeze pipes, destroy infrastructure, and kill many. The nation’s economy would quickly degrade, as businesses closed their doors and factories went dark. A nation-wide power outage that lasted three days could cause widespread panic… but a nation-wide power outage that lasted three years could wipe the nation off the map.
And that’s where DARPA’s “Black Start” scenarios come in. Thus far, DARPA’s Rapid Attack Detection, Isolation and Characterization Systems (RADICS) program has conducted three smaller scale “Black Start” scenarios in which teams of cyber warfare professionals and grid operators use the latest techniques and equipment to try to reroute electrical flow from functioning generators to mission-critical assets that have been compromised by an attack. In effect, the “Black Start” scenarios are all about pitting the best cyber attackers America has against our existing systems and then working to find creative solutions before an adversary state has a chance to try the same.
“We have a bunch of things that try to make this as painful as possible for everyone,” project leader Walter Weiss told the press. “How do you actually keep the smartest people in the world busy for a week? That takes effort.”
November’s tests on Plum Island were the largest scale “Black Start” exercise to date, and DARPA intends to keep repeating the drills every six months for as long as funding will allow. Thus far, that extends at least through 2020.
“Our goal is to be dynamic. We don’t want them to be perfect. We want to find the limits of the tools. We’re driving them to a point where we see how far they can get and then we beat them back down,” Weiss continued. “We exercise with that absolute worst-case scenario where everything’s gone wrong, everything’s failed for a month and ask how are our tools still relevant. If we can prove a tool works when everything else is broken, that gives us more confidence.”