Once I’d taken in the devastation wrought by the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, my thoughts went to the physicists I knew at Tohoku University. The university is located in the city of Sendai, 81 miles from the earthquake’s epicenter and just 10 miles from where the tsunami hit land.
News was frustratingly difficult to obtain at first. Tohoku University’s website was down; emails were either not getting through or not being answered. On 16 March, five days after the earthquake struck, a friend of mine posted on Physics Today’s Facebook page that he’d heard from an old classmate of his, a nuclear physicist at Tohoku University. Some campus buildings were damaged, but there were no casualties.
I learned later that the earthquake had damaged power lines and telecommunications cables. What’s more, the shutdown of Fukushima I and other nuclear power stations in northeastern Japan had created a power shortage. Even if telecommunications cables or cellphone towers had remained operational, information would have stopped flowing on the internet due to a lack of electromotive power.
That information is intrinsically physical and requires energy to store, process, and transmit is a familiar concept to physicists. But I was still surprised that an earthquake had shut down, or at least slowed down, Sendai’s internet. After all, the internet’s message protocols and network structures were designed to survive nuclear attacks.
Given the nature of warfare, you can presume that if one group of military thinkers has devised a new weapon, another group will try to devise a countermeasure. I don’t know whether the US Pentagon’s BLU-114/B “soft bomb” was designed to take out an enemy’s internet, but, by targeting power plants, it could achieve that goal, too.
The soft bomb is a remarkable weapon. Within the bomb’s casing are a classified number of bomblets that contain a classified number of chemically treated graphite filaments. When detonated over a power plant, the bomblets release the filaments, which spread and fall in a dense cloud. Because graphite is a conductor, the filaments short-circuit transformers on contact, leading to damaging lightning-like discharges.
During the 1999 Kosovo War, the US Air Force’s F-117 stealth fighters dropped soft bombs to temporarily disrupt or knock out 70% of Serbia’s electricity-generating capacity. According to a timeline of the war published by Rasmus Ole Rasmussen, Bent C. Jørgensen, and Bernhelm Booss-Bavnbek, Belgrade’s power was cut off on day 66 of the war. Six days later, on 6 June, Slobodan Milošević accepted NATO’s peace plan.
I hope military thinkers are devising ways to protect the internet’s physical infrastructure—if not from soft bombs, then at least from earthquakes and tsunamis.
This essay by Charles Day first appeared on page 104 of the July/August 2011 issue of Computing in Science & Engineering, a bimonthly magazine published jointly by the American Institute of Physics and IEEE Computer Society.