As a matter of speculation, how can you shut down a nation-state with a series of highly targetted strikes? Why would I do this? I don’t want to. I’m merely pointing out how.
Economic systems are vulnerable to disruptive attacks. This won’t break the state itself, but it can impoverish it. In particular, I would look for system infrastructure that is old, has a high failure rate, and is in high demand.
Chinese officers and American officers are thinking along the same lines. The Chinese call this unrestricted warfare; Americans are calling it 4th Generation Warfare. Terrorism as a tactic failed. Now we’re seeing insurgents become more creative by attacking civilian economic networks rather than civilians. So let’s imagine ourselves as clever insurgents. What can we easily attack that can seriously harm out nation-state enemies?
A number of states have been torn down by system attacks, such as Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and many others in Africa. MEND, the Nigerian insurgent group, specifically targets oil pipelines and has reduced Nigerian oil exports by over 25%. Iraqi insurgents have likewise attacked and disrupted a large number of economic systems.
So let’s categorize them.
Hard targets would be like dams and nuclear power plants. They are at fixed points, have security, and require massive amounts of explosives to cause damage. These are not good targets for amateurs.
Softer targets are indefensible networks. These networks are stretched out communications or transportation lines rather than fixed points. Amateurs can easily attack weak points in these lines and disrupt the entire system. Many of these systems are so mundane that we hardly think of them.
So as a matter of pure speculation, what type targets can you hit?
In the US and Europe, the electrical grid is a tempting target. Electrical stations and lines are overstressed by high demand and outdated equipment. A single failure at a critical hub caused the Northeast Black Out of 2003. 50 million Americans and Canadians lost power. Similar blackouts occurred in Europe, like the 2003 Italy Blackout. Repeated attacks on the electrical system can black out much of the country, particularly the northeast and west coast.
Once electrical systems fail, everything dependent on electricity fails, from factories, to hospitals, to businesses, to traffic lights. Future attacks could target liquid natural gas pipelines and other vulnerable networks. After such a series of attacks: Welcome to the Dark Ages.
Electrical grids are constantly under attack in warzones, so this is not a new strategy. The Air Force has known about it since the first planes. Insurgents know this too, and they paralyzed Iraq’s economy through attacks on the electrical system.
Here’s another mundane example. In Saudi Arabia, I would attack water desalination plants and pipelines. Disrupting water flow is a war crime, but that only reveals how tempting a target it is. Arabia does not have sufficient well water to survive as a nation without desalinations plants. Neither do most states in the Mid East. If I was an enterprising Hezbollah Agent, I’d strike the Sunni’s water supply.
But this is speculative, of course. Nations will adapt to attacks by redistributing the loads to different networks. Eventually, they will counterattack and eliminate the networks that attacked them. To fully shut down an economy, you have to strike it constantly and with professional expertise. Air Forces are one of the few services that can do so against modern states. I speculate that guerrillas will develop the capability in the near future.
I’m speculating about a better method of system disruption. I believe it is possible to shut down the entire US economy without a single attack on US soil.
The US economy is heavily dependent on foreign trade. That’s the reason why Americans are so wealthy. The tradeoff is that the US economy is vulnerable to events that occur outside our borders. Can you shut down a large percentage of this trade? Yes. And it’s much easier to fight outside the US.
One of many ways is by attacking access points in the Global Commons.
For example, naval chokepoints. One third of maritime trade goes through the straights of Malacca and Singapore. These are very narrow straights, infested by pirates. It is possible to destroy captured tankers at the narrowest point of the straights to block the chokepoint. This will temporarily stop trade between East Asia and the Indian Sea until the locals clear the wreckage. During that time period, China, Japan, and the US lose access to Middle East oil and other resources. One simple attack causes a chain reaction of failures.
Repeated attacks like the above example – and I have more creative ideas – can cripple modern economies. Each attack can be done cheaply and will cause billions of dollars in damages and lost revenue.
One or two attacks will be very costly but won’t tear down minor nation-states, much less than the US. A sustained series of attacks across broad networks will bring down the US economy – and much of the rest of the world. The only states that have the capability to launch such an effort are Russia and China.