Decaying, vulnerable infrastructure creates an American nightmare

By Harlan Ullman, Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist
President Joe Biden speaks at Hudson Yards train yard on Tuesday in New York City, where infrastructure funding will go to the Hudson River Project for improving reliability for the 200,000 passenger trips per weekday on Amtrak and New Jersey Transit. Photo by John Angelillo/UPI
President Joe Biden speaks at Hudson Yards train yard on Tuesday in New York City, where infrastructure funding will go to the Hudson River Project for improving reliability for the 200,000 passenger trips per weekday on Amtrak and New Jersey Transit. Photo by John Angelillo/UPI | License Photo

Feb. 1 (UPI) -- Americans have much to worry about. The war in Ukraine could escalate. An Air Force general predicts China "will probably invade" Taiwan within two years. COVID-19 could return.

Debt is exploding. An economic "hard landing" looms. Environmental disasters occur every day. And the nation has not been as politically divided in decades and possibly since the Civil War.


Yet, other potential nightmare scenarios cannot be discounted. In particular, the safety, reliability and security of the nation's critical infrastructure are at grave risk. In full disclosure, as past chairman (and now senior adviser) of a company engaged in protecting part of this infrastructure, I gained a firsthand education on the importance of this mission and the consequences of the absence of a coherent and overarching government and private sector strategy for safeguarding it.

A leading threat to this infrastructure is through disruption, accidental or not.


During the Cold War, Mutual Assured Destruction was the bizarre shorthand underscoring the vital necessity of preventing a cataclysmic nuclear war that would have proven existential to much of society. Today, a new MAD, for Massive Attacks of Disruption, whether by man or nature, is the most immediate threat to America.

COVID-19, environmental catastrophe, cyber and accidents, unintentional or otherwise, endanger societies that ironically are more vulnerable and susceptible to disruption as they have become more advanced and technologically sophisticated.

Consider the vulnerability of infrastructure to disruption and specifically the threat MAD poses to the power, gas and water infrastructure. These statistics show the size of the utility infrastructure. Some 3 million miles of pipelines provide about 30 trillion cubic feet of natural gas to 80 million Americans. Nearly three-quarters of a million miles of high-voltage transmission lines supply electricity. On a daily basis, Americans consume 30 billion gallons of water carried in 2.2 million miles of piping.

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Most of this collective infrastructure is antiquated, some over a century old. Exploding manhole covers, water line failures and gas leaks are among the dangers. The National Transportation Board has just added gas leaks and explosions to "the most wanted list." And natural causes of damage through environmental disasters can be matched or exceeded by manmade acts, whether physical or through cyber disruption.


That danger is real, growing and too often downplayed. Suppose, for example, access to electric power, natural gas and water is denied for days or weeks, as is the case in many third and fourth world states? How would Americans react?

This is no longer an idle question. The more dependent on infrastructure America becomes, the greater are the consequences of disruption. Yet, what is being done on a national or coordinated basis to protect this access and prevent disruption? Despite all the attention paid to this question, effective action has been limited.

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Since federal, state and local governments have not assumed full responsibility for the safety, reliability and resilience of this infrastructure, the private sector must fill this gap. With $7 trillion appropriated in the American Rescue Plank, jobs, chips and science, inflation reduction and Omnibus spending bills, money should not be an issue. To ensure that adequate funds go to protecting this and other parts of America's infrastructure, the consequences of inaction must be made clear. And a plan is needed.

Responses to the new MAD must be, first, prevention of disruption followed by containment and then limiting damage. Any number of obstacles, however, have thwarted efforts to protect and secure this infrastructure. Cost is one of them.


It is often less expensive to deal with damage and denial of service than paying for the means to detect and prevent these events from occurring in the first place. Some electric utilities have concluded that manhole explosions are so costly in terms of damage, liabilities, power outages and reputation that early detection of possible disruptions through an array of sensors is highly cost-effective. The same logic applies to electric fault detection to pre-empt outages.

Gas explosions, as noted, are always serious. Prevention, through leak detection, likewise is cost effective. In the water industries, the introduction of chemical or biological weapons is less a threat than physical disruption. Cyberattacks are potentially more disruptive and are preventable through early detection.

One conclusion is clear: Detection and prevention of disruption must be the new norms if this infrastructure is to be fully protected and safeguarded. But is anyone listening?

Harlan Ullman is senior adviser at Washington's Atlantic Council, the prime author of "shock and awe" and author of "The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large." Follow him @harlankullman.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.


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