A Terrorist Attack That America Cannot Absorb

BY Herschel Smith
13 years, 9 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.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks


  1. On September 28, 2010 at 11:53 pm, TMLutas said:

    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.

  2. On September 28, 2010 at 11:56 pm, Herschel Smith said:

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

  3. On September 29, 2010 at 12:31 am, Paul Edson said:

    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.

  4. On September 29, 2010 at 6:33 am, MjM said:

    The audio of Obama making the “absorb” comment:


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

  5. On September 29, 2010 at 8:44 am, Jeff said:

    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 …

  6. On September 29, 2010 at 8:46 am, Jeff said:

    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 …

  7. On September 29, 2010 at 8:48 am, Sean D Sorrentino said:

    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.

  8. On September 29, 2010 at 9:03 am, WFG said:

    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.

  9. On September 29, 2010 at 1:36 pm, FeFe said:

    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.

  10. On September 30, 2010 at 6:54 am, TS Alfabet said:

    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

  11. On October 1, 2010 at 2:57 am, Zak said:

    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.

  12. On October 2, 2010 at 9:54 am, TS Alfabet said:

    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.

  13. On July 24, 2012 at 7:27 am, Smith said:

    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.

  14. On July 24, 2012 at 7:30 am, JeffC said:

    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 …

  15. On July 24, 2012 at 8:08 am, Denver said:

    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.

  16. On July 24, 2012 at 10:28 am, Bruno Behrend said:

    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”

  17. On July 24, 2012 at 11:01 am, Herschel Smith said:

    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.

  18. On July 24, 2012 at 1:20 pm, Corky Boyd said:

    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.

  19. On July 25, 2012 at 11:10 am, TS Alfabet said:

    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.

  20. On April 16, 2013 at 11:22 pm, Matt said:

    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.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment

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.

If you're interested in what else the The Captain's Journal has to say, you might try thumbing through the archives and visiting the main index, or; perhaps you would like to learn more about TCJ.

26th MEU (10)
Abu Muqawama (12)
ACOG (2)
ACOGs (1)
Afghan National Army (36)
Afghan National Police (17)
Afghanistan (704)
Afghanistan SOFA (4)
Agriculture in COIN (3)
AGW (1)
Air Force (40)
Air Power (10)
al Qaeda (83)
Ali al-Sistani (1)
America (22)
Ammunition (278)
Animals (295)
Ansar al Sunna (15)
Anthropology (3)
Antonin Scalia (1)
AR-15s (374)
Arghandab River Valley (1)
Arlington Cemetery (2)
Army (87)
Assassinations (2)
Assault Weapon Ban (29)
Australian Army (7)
Azerbaijan (4)
Backpacking (3)
Badr Organization (8)
Baitullah Mehsud (21)
Basra (17)
BATFE (224)
Battle of Bari Alai (2)
Battle of Wanat (18)
Battle Space Weight (3)
Bin Laden (7)
Blogroll (3)
Blogs (24)
Body Armor (23)
Books (3)
Border War (18)
Brady Campaign (1)
Britain (38)
British Army (35)
Camping (5)
Canada (17)
Castle Doctrine (1)
Caucasus (6)
Center For a New American Security (8)
Charity (3)
China (16)
Christmas (16)
CIA (30)
Civilian National Security Force (3)
Col. Gian Gentile (9)
Combat Outposts (3)
Combat Video (2)
Concerned Citizens (6)
Constabulary Actions (3)
Coolness Factor (3)
COP Keating (4)
Corruption in COIN (4)
Council on Foreign Relations (1)
Counterinsurgency (218)
DADT (2)
David Rohde (1)
Defense Contractors (2)
Department of Defense (210)
Department of Homeland Security (26)
Disaster Preparedness (5)
Distributed Operations (5)
Dogs (15)
Donald Trump (27)
Drone Campaign (4)
EFV (3)
Egypt (12)
El Salvador (1)
Embassy Security (1)
Enemy Spotters (1)
Expeditionary Warfare (17)
F-22 (2)
F-35 (1)
Fallujah (17)
Far East (3)
Fathers and Sons (2)
Favorite (1)
Fazlullah (3)
FBI (39)
Featured (189)
Federal Firearms Laws (18)
Financing the Taliban (2)
Firearms (1,781)
Football (1)
Force Projection (35)
Force Protection (4)
Force Transformation (1)
Foreign Policy (27)
Fukushima Reactor Accident (6)
Ganjgal (1)
Garmsir (1)
general (15)
General Amos (1)
General James Mattis (1)
General McChrystal (44)
General McKiernan (6)
General Rodriguez (3)
General Suleimani (9)
Georgia (19)
Google (1)
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (1)
Gun Control (1,653)
Guns (2,321)
Guns In National Parks (3)
Haditha Roundup (10)
Haiti (2)
Haqqani Network (9)
Hate Mail (8)
Hekmatyar (1)
Heroism (5)
Hezbollah (12)
High Capacity Magazines (16)
High Value Targets (9)
Homecoming (1)
Homeland Security (3)
Horses (2)
Humor (72)
Hunting (36)
ICOS (1)
IEDs (7)
Immigration (108)
India (10)
Infantry (4)
Information Warfare (4)
Infrastructure (4)
Intelligence (23)
Intelligence Bulletin (6)
Iran (171)
Iraq (379)
Iraq SOFA (23)
Islamic Facism (64)
Islamists (98)
Israel (19)
Jaish al Mahdi (21)
Jalalabad (1)
Japan (3)
Jihadists (81)
John Nagl (5)
Joint Intelligence Centers (1)
JRTN (1)
Kabul (1)
Kajaki Dam (1)
Kamdesh (9)
Kandahar (12)
Karachi (7)
Kashmir (2)
Khost Province (1)
Khyber (11)
Knife Blogging (7)
Korea (4)
Korengal Valley (3)
Kunar Province (20)
Kurdistan (3)
Language in COIN (5)
Language in Statecraft (1)
Language Interpreters (2)
Lashkar-e-Taiba (2)
Law Enforcement (6)
Lawfare (14)
Leadership (6)
Lebanon (6)
Leon Panetta (2)
Let Them Fight (2)
Libya (14)
Lines of Effort (3)
Littoral Combat (8)
Logistics (50)
Long Guns (1)
Lt. Col. Allen West (2)
Marine Corps (280)
Marines in Bakwa (1)
Marines in Helmand (67)
Marjah (4)
Media (68)
Medical (146)
Memorial Day (6)
Mexican Cartels (41)
Mexico (61)
Michael Yon (6)
Micromanaging the Military (7)
Middle East (1)
Military Blogging (26)
Military Contractors (5)
Military Equipment (25)
Militia (9)
Mitt Romney (3)
Monetary Policy (1)
Moqtada al Sadr (2)
Mosul (4)
Mountains (25)
MRAPs (1)
Mullah Baradar (1)
Mullah Fazlullah (1)
Mullah Omar (3)
Musa Qala (4)
Music (25)
Muslim Brotherhood (6)
Nation Building (2)
National Internet IDs (1)
National Rifle Association (95)
NATO (15)
Navy (30)
Navy Corpsman (1)
NCOs (3)
News (1)
NGOs (3)
Nicholas Schmidle (2)
Now Zad (19)
NSA (3)
NSA James L. Jones (6)
Nuclear (62)
Nuristan (8)
Obama Administration (221)
Offshore Balancing (1)
Operation Alljah (7)
Operation Khanjar (14)
Ossetia (7)
Pakistan (165)
Paktya Province (1)
Palestine (5)
Patriotism (7)
Patrolling (1)
Pech River Valley (11)
Personal (73)
Petraeus (14)
Pictures (1)
Piracy (13)
Pistol (4)
Pizzagate (21)
Police (654)
Police in COIN (3)
Policy (15)
Politics (975)
Poppy (2)
PPEs (1)
Prisons in Counterinsurgency (12)
Project Gunrunner (20)
PRTs (1)
Qatar (1)
Quadrennial Defense Review (2)
Quds Force (13)
Quetta Shura (1)
RAND (3)
Recommended Reading (14)
Refueling Tanker (1)
Religion (493)
Religion and Insurgency (19)
Reuters (1)
Rick Perry (4)
Rifles (1)
Roads (4)
Rolling Stone (1)
Ron Paul (1)
ROTC (1)
Rules of Engagement (75)
Rumsfeld (1)
Russia (37)
Sabbatical (1)
Sangin (1)
Saqlawiyah (1)
Satellite Patrols (2)
Saudi Arabia (4)
Scenes from Iraq (1)
Second Amendment (675)
Second Amendment Quick Hits (2)
Secretary Gates (9)
Sharia Law (3)
Shura Ittehad-ul-Mujahiden (1)
SIIC (2)
Sirajuddin Haqqani (1)
Small Wars (72)
Snipers (9)
Sniveling Lackeys (2)
Soft Power (4)
Somalia (8)
Sons of Afghanistan (1)
Sons of Iraq (2)
Special Forces (28)
Squad Rushes (1)
State Department (23)
Statistics (1)
Sunni Insurgency (10)
Support to Infantry Ratio (1)
Supreme Court (57)
Survival (186)
SWAT Raids (57)
Syria (38)
Tactical Drills (38)
Tactical Gear (14)
Taliban (168)
Taliban Massing of Forces (4)
Tarmiyah (1)
TBI (1)
Technology (21)
Tehrik-i-Taliban (78)
Terrain in Combat (1)
Terrorism (96)
Thanksgiving (13)
The Anbar Narrative (23)
The Art of War (5)
The Fallen (1)
The Long War (20)
The Surge (3)
The Wounded (13)
Thomas Barnett (1)
Transnational Insurgencies (5)
Tribes (5)
TSA (25)
TSA Ineptitude (14)
TTPs (4)
U.S. Border Patrol (6)
U.S. Border Security (19)
U.S. Sovereignty (24)
UAVs (2)
UBL (4)
Ukraine (10)
Uncategorized (98)
Universal Background Check (3)
Unrestricted Warfare (4)
USS Iwo Jima (2)
USS San Antonio (1)
Uzbekistan (1)
V-22 Osprey (4)
Veterans (3)
Vietnam (1)
War & Warfare (414)
War & Warfare (41)
War Movies (4)
War Reporting (21)
Wardak Province (1)
Warriors (6)
Waziristan (1)
Weapons and Tactics (79)
West Point (1)
Winter Operations (1)
Women in Combat (21)
WTF? (1)
Yemen (1)

July 2024
June 2024
May 2024
April 2024
March 2024
February 2024
January 2024
December 2023
November 2023
October 2023
September 2023
August 2023
July 2023
June 2023
May 2023
April 2023
March 2023
February 2023
January 2023
December 2022
November 2022
October 2022
September 2022
August 2022
July 2022
June 2022
May 2022
April 2022
March 2022
February 2022
January 2022
December 2021
November 2021
October 2021
September 2021
August 2021
July 2021
June 2021
May 2021
April 2021
March 2021
February 2021
January 2021
December 2020
November 2020
October 2020
September 2020
August 2020
July 2020
June 2020
May 2020
April 2020
March 2020
February 2020
January 2020
December 2019
November 2019
October 2019
September 2019
August 2019
July 2019
June 2019
May 2019
April 2019
March 2019
February 2019
January 2019
December 2018
November 2018
October 2018
September 2018
August 2018
July 2018
June 2018
May 2018
April 2018
March 2018
February 2018
January 2018
December 2017
November 2017
October 2017
September 2017
August 2017
July 2017
June 2017
May 2017
April 2017
March 2017
February 2017
January 2017
December 2016
November 2016
October 2016
September 2016
August 2016
July 2016
June 2016
May 2016
April 2016
March 2016
February 2016
January 2016
December 2015
November 2015
October 2015
September 2015
August 2015
July 2015
June 2015
May 2015
April 2015
March 2015
February 2015
January 2015
December 2014
November 2014
October 2014
September 2014
August 2014
July 2014
June 2014
May 2014
April 2014
March 2014
February 2014
January 2014
December 2013
November 2013
October 2013
September 2013
August 2013
July 2013
June 2013
May 2013
April 2013
March 2013
February 2013
January 2013
December 2012
November 2012
October 2012
September 2012
August 2012
July 2012
June 2012
May 2012
April 2012
March 2012
February 2012
January 2012
December 2011
November 2011
October 2011
September 2011
August 2011
July 2011
June 2011
May 2011
April 2011
March 2011
February 2011
January 2011
December 2010
November 2010
October 2010
September 2010
August 2010
July 2010
June 2010
May 2010
April 2010
March 2010
February 2010
January 2010
December 2009
November 2009
October 2009
September 2009
August 2009
July 2009
June 2009
May 2009
April 2009
March 2009
February 2009
January 2009
December 2008
November 2008
October 2008
September 2008
August 2008
July 2008
June 2008
May 2008
April 2008
March 2008
February 2008
January 2008
December 2007
November 2007
October 2007
September 2007
August 2007
July 2007
June 2007
May 2007
April 2007
March 2007
February 2007
January 2007
December 2006
November 2006
October 2006
September 2006
August 2006
July 2006
June 2006
May 2006

about · archives · contact · register

Copyright © 2006-2024 Captain's Journal. All rights reserved.