When people think of national defense, images of high-tech fighter jets, tanks, artillery and infantry often come to mind — and there is no doubt that these are some of the most important tools used to defend national sovereignty.
However, the fundamental resources of a society — energy and the natural resources that fuel it — are the most critical points of failure for a logistics supply chain that is needed to support warfighting capacity.
In the past few weeks, people have seen two examples of how critical energy supplies are to stability in Taiwan and the US.
A cyberattack on a Colonial Pipeline network in the US temporarily shut down oil flow to half of the east coast. It has caused immediate and consequential pressure on energy supply, and was only resolved by paying a ransom that hackers had demanded.
On Thursday last week, a problem with Taiwan’s grid left areas temporarily without power. While the failure was not a result of a cyberattack, it is easy to see how vulnerable the nation’s energy grid might be if it cannot handle an unexpected change in supply.
How is it that such critical infrastructure is so open to cyberattack and failure? Is it in the nature of such networked systems — that with increased efficiency comes increased vulnerability to such attacks?
To a certain extent, the answer is yes.
While there are solutions, such as running critical infrastructure on networks that are not connected to the Internet or even having them run manually, the modern world relies on the efficiency that broad networks provide.
It is not hard to imagine how attacking Taiwan’s electricity and water supplies in earnest could paralyze the nation’s defense capability. Given Taiwan’s reliance on the high-tech sector, a sustained attack would wreak havoc on its economy, let alone the social chaos caused by sustained blackouts — after all, there is no reason to believe that a cyberattack aimed at dismantling the government would restrict itself to military targets alone.
Thus, Taiwan must confront the reality that some of its most tempting weaknesses are not counted on the ledger of conventional military strength, but rather in the domain of cyber and infrastructure defense.
A bona fide cyberoffensive would likely be paired with a disinformation campaign, designed to lower morale and raise suspicion among Taiwanese about the cause of the attack and its effects.
To lower the risk and consequences of such a possibility, Taiwan should increase its budget for cybersecurity and consider installing larger energy storage facilities, like the one Tesla built several years ago in South Australia.
Taiwan, like all countries that rely on modern industry and the Internet, is highly vulnerable to cyberattacks on its infrastructure. Taiwanese would do well to adjust quickly to this hole in their defense, which has just been demonstrated so publicly.
Chen Kuan-ting is chief executive officer of the Taiwan Nextgen Foundation and a former staff member at the National Security Council.
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