Can cyberattacks on critical national infrastructure be thwarted?
By Rajeev Narayan.
In June, when India was under lockdown because of the Covid-19 pandemic and
the defence forces were in a dangerous faceoff with the Chinese army on the
Ladakh border, the Indian railway network came under cyberattack. Indian
Railways was hit by a malware APT 26 that was stealing its data, including train
movements, and storing it in foreign locations. The Railway Board had to
immediately disconnect the system from the internet and change the password.
Curiously, the cyberattack happened barely a day after the government cancelled
a 417-km signalling project worth Rs 471 crores with a Chinese company.
Not only our rail system but our nation’s power transmission grid, oil networks,
dams and airports are increasingly targets of hackers. Just last year, Indian media
reported India’s power sector faced rising cyberattacks, with an average of 30
reported daily. Naturally, there are growing concerns India’s power infrastructure
can be a target of those foreign powers seeking to paralyze India’s economy. The
issue has become more critical now the country has an integrated national power
grid. This vulnerability is even more crucial against the backdrop of increased
hostility between India and China in the Ladakh region, which can turn “hot” at
any time. Clearly, the nature of modern warfare has changed, with serious
implications for India’s national security.
In its annual worldwide threat assessment report, the Office of the Director of
National Intelligence, US, which was tabled in the Senate in January 2019, gave a
detailed insight into the cyber threat posed by China.The Report said China now
could successfully target critical infrastructure, such as the electric grid and
cause “temporary disruptive effects” virtually anywhere in the world.
To protect national assets such as the railways and electric infrastructure, dieselelectric locomotives with clean emissions technology can provide India with a
vital defence in the event of a cyberattack without compromising the nation’s
environmental goals. During any attack, the electric grid would be targeted,
damaged, and might even be completely paralyzed. For thse reasons alone,
deploying diesel engines are vitalto be able to transport goods and commodities,
troops and materials.
The government has announced plans to electrify the entire railway system in the
next three to five years. Policymakers and academicians disagree whether this is
a wise decision, given the hefty cost, the increase in air pollution, and the
availability of fuel efficient, clean burning diesel technology that can be deployed
for a small fraction of the cost of electricification. One thing, however is certain:
not having a fleet of modernized diesel-electric locomotives to operate in the
event of a cyberattack from a hostile foreign government would be very
detrimental to India’s national security.
Working off the grid
Technological advances in diesel engines in recent years have changed the
equation about which type of locomotives to deploy. The new generation of
diesel-fuelled locos are as fuel efficient, and in some ways, more efficient, than
their electric counterparts. Electric locomotives have been pushed in India as a
solution to the country’s chronic air pollution problem, but that is not the case.
When the pollution created by burning coal in thermal power plants to produce
the electricity needed to electrify the rail lines is factored in, electric locomotives
produce more pollution than diesel locomotives that have been upgraded to the
latest emissions controls.
But in the present context, it is important to note diesel locomotives operate off
the grid and cannot be subjected to cyberattacks. A diesel powered locomotive
is, in fact, an electric locomotive carrying its own powerhouse. Our energy policy
should ideally leverage proven technology, minimize the cost, maximize benefits
to the environment and prioritize the national security.
Such advantages often get obscured in policy debates. But here’s the thing: diesel
is efficient, economical, leaves a small carbon footprint and is an unassailable
asset in a situation where the nation’s electric power supply has become highly
vulnerable due to a cyberattack.