A Terrorist Attack That America Cannot Absorb

BY Herschel Smith
3 years, 11 months ago

According to Bob Woodward who has recently completed his book entitled Obama’s Wars, an interesting view of terrorist attacks has emerged from the White House.

Woodward’s book portrays Obama and the White House as barraged by warnings about the threat of terrorist attacks on U.S. soil and confronted with the difficulty in preventing them. During an interview with Woodward in July, the president said, “We can absorb a terrorist attack. We’ll do everything we can to prevent it, but even a 9/11, even the biggest attack ever . . . we absorbed it and we are stronger.”

I’m not particularly fond of Woodward’s use of anonymous sources, but let’s assume for the moment the complete accuracy of this position.  At a minimum, it hasn’t been denied by the White House.  It’s difficult to imagine a more important opinion on the future of terrorist attacks on the homeland than that of the President.  It’s also impossible to underestimate the horrible confusion, naivety and childlike grasp of homeland security that this opinion betrays.

I had originally passed over this quote as something that would quietly die, that didn’t really represent the thinking of the Department of Homeland Security, and that wouldn’t prevent the administration from doing what was necessary to prevent attacks on the homeland to the degree possible.  But Bob Woodward was interviewed by Bill O’Reilly tonight, and neither of them actually had a problem with the quote other than simply that the President of the U.S. shouldn’t say such things in public.

In a brief attempt to address this mistaken notion of the inherent capability to absorb any attack, I will pose one that we simply cannot absorb.  The scenario I am about to describe can be accomplished by simple, direct attacks and without reference to more complicated organizational skills except for weapons, dedicated fighters and effective timing.  The scenario I am about to describe would quite literally destroy the economy of the nation for a long time.  I am hesitant to describe it in detail; when I do this sort of thing I usually get charged with giving the terrorists ideas.

But the fact of the matter is that the terrorists already know these things, and it is important to educate the American people to the dangers right outside the gate.  It’s also important to reflect on what it means to kill terrorists on foreign soil and destroy their sanctuaries rather than allow them to perpetrate attacks with which we cannot cope.  That said, it’s time to describe the attack.

I don’t want to divulge too much detail concerning what could be regarded as nuclear safeguards information.  But the reader will have to trust me when I say that commercial nuclear power plants are hardened.  They were so prior to 9/11, but they are even more so now.  They are not fertile ground for terrorist attacks, even for the most well trained, well armed and educated group of fighters.  I cannot go any further in discussing the details of nuclear security, but the terrorists also know that nuclear reactors are not fertile fighting ground.  Forget about them.

Not so for commercial fossil facilities.  They are not hardened and not well guarded.  The most vulnerable structure, system or component for large scale coal plants is the main step up transformer – that component that handles electricity at 230 or 500 kV.  They are one of a kind components, and no two are exactly alike.  They are so huge and so heavy that they must be transported to the site via special designed rail cars intended only for them, and only about three of these exist in the U.S.

They are no longer fabricated in the U.S., much the same as other large scale steel fabrication.  It’s manufacture has primarily gone overseas.  These step up transformers must be ordered years in advance of their installation.  Some utilities are part of a consortium to keep one of these transformers available for multiple coal units, hoping that more will not be needed at any one time.  In industrial engineering terms, the warehouse min-max for these components is a fine line.

On any given day with the right timing, several well trained, dedicated, well armed fighters would be able to force their way on to utility property, fire missiles or lay explosives at the transformer, destroy it, and perhaps even go to the next given the security for coal plants.  Next in line along the transmission system are other important transformers, not as important as the main step up transformers, but still important, that would also be vulnerable to attack.  With the transmission system in chaos and completely isolated due to protective relaying, and with the coal units that supply the majority of the electricity to the nation incapable of providing that power for years due to the wait for step up transformers, whole cites, heavy industry, and homes and businesses would be left in the dark for a protracted period of time, all over the nation.

The economy would collapse, regardless of how much good will and positive hope there was among the ruling elite.  The hard facts of life – America in the dark – would soon become apparent to everyone, and the economy wouldn’t be able to absorb it.

That’s only one of the many possibilities, and in order to avoid the charge of divulging too much detail to terrorists, I will stop here.  But suffice it to say that if you give me weapons, ordnance, time and 300 or 400 dedicated fighters with a calendar and a watch, I could collapse the economy of America.

Where would these fighters come from?  Recall that we have previously discussed two very good papers on Hezbollah and their activities in the Americas.  They’re around, lying in wait for orders, and it’s best not to have them on our soil.  It’s best to confront them away from the infrastructure that is proving itself to be so vulnerable to their malicious aims.



  • http://chicagoboyz.net TMLutas

    This is, indeed, a very nasty attack. You’re mistaken though that it would take years to repair. Demand for these step up transformers is currently very low. You generally don’t need a lot of them and the demand is highly predictable. It is simply uneconomic to create spare capacity for a production surge.

    But we would need a lot if the attack you lay out were to actually happen. I suspect that we’d be creating the infrastructure to build those transformers, and quickly.

    I suspect that a great many chunks of regulation that tie such projects up for years would be waived or simply not enforced. If we have not already done so, we should pass legislation that gives the executive the right to suspend enforcement in the case of projects to restore vital infrastructure in the face of terrorist attack.

  • http://www.captainsjournal.com/ Herschel Smith

    Thanks for your observations. The lead time is actually between four and five years for these components.

  • Paul Edson

    Worked in the industry. I have no idea where Herschel Smith got a lead time of 4 and 5 years.
    Simply not so.
    Having said that, I can think of several ways to cause damage that would be game changing, so the warning has teeth.
    Even the most optomistic among us probably agree we have been lucky so far.

  • MjM

    The audio of Obama making the “absorb” comment:

    http://www.hapblog.com/2010/09/audio-obama-in-his-own-words-we-can.html

    Other targets that once hit would bring the economy to it’s knees: Gas-gen plants, E-transmission lines, and refineries.

  • Jeff

    I would think that a couple of billion left over dollars from the Stimulus would buy the US a spare main step up transformer for each one in service today …
    think of it as a Manhatten project like effort … in the meantime, build a barracks at each major power plant and drop 200 man Army or Marine teams in there to “harden” the location …

  • Jeff

    I was in NYC when the power died in 2003 and the first thought everyone had was that this was yet another attack … thankfully it was not and we recovered in short order but that took days and nothing was even destroyed that needed to be replaced … 3 days without power in parts of NYC was kind of like camping … 3 weeks would have been kind of like a scene from the Road Warrior …

  • Sean D Sorrentino

    Given the utter lack of security, I’d go for the generator’s prime movers themselves. You want long lead times, try buying a steam turbine.

  • WFG

    I work in the industry, easy to hit not guarded very well, although it is guarded. It WOULD take a VERY long time to replace ALL the components
    It would take a while just to clean up to start replacing the turbines, or what ever you need to replace. If they were to hit several places it could be a terrible time consuming task. All this time their would be NO POWER what so ever in the entire area. The Captain IS correct.

  • FeFe

    Too true terrorists should not be on our soil. Will no one secure our borders and stop passing out Visas like candy and using tax dollars to pay Islamic immigrants to set up in the U.S.? With such exposure to our flanks, COIN is a mission too far.

  • TS Alfabet

    While I do not want to be seen as piling on, there is still the very real threat of the EMP attack which could occur from the Gulf of Mexico or off the Atlantic.

    This type of attack does not require any trained group of fighters or particularly good timing. It just requires a relatively small yield nuclear warhead loaded onto currently existing ballistic missiles with a range of less than one thousand miles.

    Whether it is an EMP strike or the disabling of electrical transmission, William Fortschen does a pretty good job of illustrating the consequences of a lack of electricity for a prolonged period in his book, “One Second After.”

    Side note: an EMP strike is far more devastating as it not only causes the entire power grid to go down all at once, but virtually wipes out all transportation by frying the sensitive, electrical components contained in every car manufactured after, I think, 1980. That means, no police, no fire department, no food transport, no medical supplies… As bad as it could be to have a transformer or step up knocked out, at least vehicles would still function along with private generators and electronics.

    Here is the 2004 report of the federal commission tasked with studying EMP attacks: http://stop-emp.com/EMPCExecRpt_Final072204.pdf

  • Zak

    This isn’t on the same page as anything related to the powergrid, but I’m still wiating for the day that 1-2 man teams hit malls and places of business. Doesn’t take much to cordinate, very little resources involved (AK, pistol, homemade explosive) and you could have a hayday blocking off the exit points (which are also choke points) at malls. Tragically the same way some kids have done it at schools.

    With that said, I know there is a way to bounce back and the ecnomy would still function due to online stores etc, but people would be very afraid to leave their homes. Normal everyday popualtion centers would turn into a police state and the normal way of everyday life would cease to exists, at least for a while.

  • TS Alfabet

    Good point, Zak.

    But Israeli society has managed to continue notwithstanding the horrific attacks by arab terrorists.

    And, if such attacks started, you can bet that laws permitting the carrying of concealed weapons would gain wide and fast approval.

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  • Smith

    They could blaze up wildfires throughout the arid west to cause further billions of dollars of economic damage.

    There are too many easy and devastating targets, which is why the author is correct we have to fight them over there, rather than waiting for them to engage us here.

  • JeffC

    Basically you are describing a man made EMP attack … not sure you would need that many men to hit alot of stations … one rpg per transformer would do the trick … in some cases they could attack from outside the facility … just walk up to the fence and fire …

  • Denver

    I’d just like to remind all the pundi, and pundi wannabes, of the devastation caused by Saddam’s withdrawal from Kuwait. Remember the destroyed well heads intentionally set afire? Remember all the nambypamby pundi who said it would take decades, if ever, to put out the fires. Hurrumph. Dumbasses.

    The US would overcome. It would be ugly, no doubt, especially with the addition of 50 years worth of entitled citizens we have grown as a result of our superior leftist wisdom. But consider, if we approached the problems in the same way WWII was approached (all hands on deck), there would be no one left to live the entitled lifestyle by the time the repairs were completed.

    Good day.

  • http://www.extremewisdom.com Bruno Behrend

    Every train engine in America is a movable power plant.

    The best thing about this post is its reminder that a distributed network is more resilient than a centralized one.

    We need to start putting back-up plans in place, and this includes providing tax incentives for every 5th or 10 house to become a power producer.

    Google “lichtblick VW”

  • http://www.captainsjournal.com/ Herschel Smith

    JeffC, this is worse than an EMP event because infrastructure (that cannot be quickly repaired) is left in shambles.

    Denver, I’m not sure of your point or if you even have one.

    Bruno, decentralized and localized means of producing power for individual homes are fine, but the point remains that industry cannot be powered without large power producers such as large U.S. utilities.

  • http://islandturtle.blogpot.com Corky Boyd

    Interesting article.

    When I was in Air Intelligence school in 1960, one of the courses was targeting and mission planning. There were various pubs that outlined the vulnerabilties of various industries and the length of time to repair.

    For electrical power, the target of choice was not the generator buildings. They are relatively hard and the fuzing difficult to calculate. The transformers were the target of choice because the estimated time for repair/replacement was one year. Transformers were tough to kill in the days of iron (dumb) bombs and most were expected to be protected with concrete revetments around them. Large numbers of small (500 pound) bombs were the weapon of choice, the numbers needed were dictated by the CEP (accuracy).

    Earthen or concrete revetments would probably provide a level of safety from ground based terrorists. Interestingly, it appears there is GPS spoofing around nuclear plants to protect them from airborne attacks.

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  • TS Alfabet

    Herschel, I’m not so sure that ground attacks against power stations would be worse than en EMP. The EMP would knock out the power stations same as your hypothetical assault team, but it would *also* knock out every, single automobile, airplane, refrigerator, truck, etc… everything that is dependent on EMP-vulnerable electronics. That’s an effect that not even General Sherman on his worst day could hope to accomplish. The fact that we still do not seem any closer in the U.S. to protecting against the EMP threat (whether it is a nuke exploded above the U.S. or a Carrington Effect solar storm) is scary indeed.

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  • Matt

    This attack didn’t make much sense in terms of terrorism, but it does make a lot of sense if somebody was trying to get Americans all spun up.

    First, it happened at a time when there was very low demand, so there was little effect.

    Second, they cut through the chain link fence to get up close when the effective range of a centerfire rifle is in the hundreds of yards. It would have made more sense to stand off at least a couple of hundred yards and take a few shots.

    This was intended to get people’s attention.

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You are currently reading "A Terrorist Attack That America Cannot Absorb", entry #5549 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Hezbollah,Terrorism and was published September 28th, 2010 by Herschel Smith.

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