- - Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Sunday, April 11, saw another harbinger of future warfare so revolutionary it needs new vocabulary. Israel’s apparent “cyber-blackout” of Natanz is the latest example of what I call, in my book of the same name: “Blackout Wars.”

April 11 is “National Nuclear Day” in Iran.

Just hours before U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin arrived in Tel Aviv, Israeli news reported Iran’s underground uranium enrichment complex at Natanz was paralyzed by Mossad (Israel’s CIA) making a cyber-attack on the Natanz electric grid.  

Israel government officials have so far not confirmed the allegations.

On Saturday, Iran announced turning-on 164 IR-6 advanced uranium centrifuges at Natanz, and testing at Natanz even more advanced IR-9 centrifuges, capable of enriching uranium 50 times faster than the IR-1, Iran’s first-generation uranium centrifuge. 



Tehran denies seeking nuclear weapons, but recently increased uranium enrichment at Natanz from 3% to 20%, enabling very quickly, within a few months, uranium enrichment to 90% purity, nuclear weapons-grade.  

Now Iran plans, when Natanz resumes operations, to enrich uranium to 60% purity. In 2010, the U.S. and Israel cyber-attacked Natanz using the “stuxnet worm” to damage uranium enrichment centrifuges, slowing Iran’s nuclear program. The Obama administration drew criticism for publicly acknowledging its role in 2012.

In November 2020, one of Iran’s leading nuclear scientists, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, was assassinated along with his bodyguards on a rural highway, in a hit attributed to Israel.

The cyber-blackout of Natanz is the latest desperate effort to stop Iran from building their “Islamic Bomb.”  

Details are as yet lacking, but Iran has described the cyber-attack on the Natanz electric grid as blacking out the entire vast complex, including surface workshops and the underground centrifuges.  

According to Iranian officials, there was a small explosion and fire. This is consistent with a cyber-attack that manipulates SCADAs controlling a high-voltage transformer, causing the transformer to overload and explode.       

Reportedly: “The facility seemed to be in such disarray that, following the attack, a prominent nuclear spokesman, Behrouz Kamalvandi, walking above ground at the site fell 7 meters (23 feet) through an open ventilation shaft covered by aluminum debris, breaking both his legs and hurting his head.” Mr. Kamalvandi blamed his fall on scattered debris covering the ventilation shaft from a “minor explosion.”

Iran describes the Natanz cyber-blackout as an act of “nuclear terrorism.”

Ironically, all the clandestine operations and futile negotiations to stop Iran’s “Islamic Bomb” may be too late. Senior national security officials from the Reagan and Clinton administrations warned in February 2016 and again in 2021 that “Iran Probably Already Has The Bomb” (National Review 20 March 2021).

Natanz is part of Iran’s civilian overt nuclear program, which may be a false target distracting from suspect underground military facilities, off-limits to the IAEA and never inspected.

If Iran has already developed nuclear weapons deliverable by missile and satellite clandestinely, perhaps helped by its strategic partner North Korea, this may explain why Tehran has never retaliated for any of the attacks on Natanz and its civilian nuclear program.

Cyber-blackout of Natanz foreshadows a much bigger emerging threat from “blackout warfare.”   

In October 2020, China apparently blacked-out Mumbai (population more than 20 million), displaying capability to cyber-blackout all India.  Russia inflicts a cyber-blackout on Ukraine every year, around Christmas. In March 2020, China threatened an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack to blackout U.S. Navy “aggressors” in the South China Sea as one of their less escalatory options.

In 2017, the Congressional EMP Commission warned:

“Combined-arms cyber warfare, as described in the military doctrines of Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran, may use combinations of cyber-, sabotage, and ultimately nuclear EMP-attack to impair the United States quickly and decisively by blacking-out large portions of the electric grid and other critical infrastructures … The synergism of such combined arms is described in military doctrines of all these potential adversaries as the greatest revolution in military affairs in history — one which projects rendering obsolete many, if not all, traditional instruments of military power.”

Blackout warfare could kill millions by paralyzing electric grids that power all the life-sustaining critical infrastructures, including communications, transportation, business and finance, food and water.

The EMP Commission: “A long-term outage owing to EMP could disable most critical supply chains, leaving the U.S. population living in conditions similar to centuries past, prior to the advent of electric power. In the 1800s, the U.S. population was less than 60 million, and those people had many skills and assets necessary for survival without today’s infrastructure. An extended blackout today could result in the death of a large fraction of the American people through the effects of societal collapse, disease, and starvation.”

Yet cyber-blackout of electric grids, despite potentially catastrophic consequences for national populations, is considered by most Western analysts to be “Gray Zone Warfare” — aggression short of a “real shooting war” between air, land and sea forces.

Today, Russia is poised to invade Ukraine and China to attack Taiwan.

What if a “real shooting war” is preceded by a combined cyber and nuclear EMP attack that blacks-out the United States? Will President Biden order nuclear retaliation, assuming he knows who attacked and assuming U.S. forces are not paralyzed?

Or will the president focus all remaining operational assets, including the Defense Department, on national recovery — before millions of Americans die?

Such is how our adversaries think. We better start thinking, too. 

• Peter Vincent Pry, director of the Task Force on National and Homeland Security, served as chief of staff on the Congressional EMP Commission, and on the staffs of the House Armed Service Committee and the CIA. He is author most recently of “The Power And The Light” (Amazon.com).

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